CAMBODIA: Khmer Rouge Trials Set Precedent for Justice
CAMBODIA: Khmer Rouge Trials Set Precedent for Justice

Guest commentator Vicheka Lay, a legal consultant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, reflects on the Khmer Rouge trials…


In February, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) began the trial of one of the Khmer Rouge's former leaders, Kaing Guek Eav, also known as "Duch". Guek Eav allegedly committed a large number of human rights violations in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and is the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the ECCC.

Allegations of corruption and underfunding have plagued the ECCC since it was instituted, causing many people to question whether the ECCC trials will actually bring justice for the Cambodian people. Consequently, two public opinions have arisen. One group endorses the Khmer Rouge trials, because they believe that at least some justice may be served. Another group would like to eliminate the trials, largely due to the belief that the Cambodian people will never actually benefit from them. Since the court is just in its infancy, it is hard to speculate to what extent the Cambodian people will benefit from the trials. However, the process has at least unveiled the faces of leaders accused of committing the atrocities, and will attempt to hold them accountable for any international human rights laws they have violated.

Duch faces numerous charges, including homicide and torture under Cambodian criminal law, crimes against humanity, and breaches of the Geneva Conventions. He will almost certainly face criminal penalties. By punishing violations of international law, the ECCC may achieve several goals. First, enforcing penalties will raise public awareness of those laws. Second, penalties will serve as a deterrent to people who might consider violating those laws in the future. Ultimately, the ECCC will create a trend toward penalizing international law violations, ensuring that justice will prevail in the future.

It is true that the Cambodian people may not receive the justice they desire from the ECCC trials at present. However, perhaps the type of justice people seek is too narrowly defined. Many Cambodians focus on punitive justice in hopes of righting various wrongs committed in the past. These people are dissatisfied by the ECCC trials, which cannot fully redress past injustices allegedly committed by the Khmer Rouge.

Although the ECCC trials are certainly punitive, it is more important that they will also set a precedent. Thus, the major benefit of the ECCC trials to the Cambodian people may not be justice for the past, but rather the establishment of a permanent and timeless justice for the future.

The opinions expressed in this article are entirely those of the author and do not reflect the views of any entity with which the author may be affiliated.

Photo credit: Dorothy Miller, University of Wisconsin School of Law, JD 2011.

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