What does International Criminal Justice Day mean for Cambodia?

Today – 17 July 2014 – is International Criminal Justice Day, marking the entry into force of the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court. In Cambodia, this year’s International Criminal Justice Day holds particular relevance considering that later this month, the next phase of the criminal trials for former Khmer Rouge leaders will commence.

What is the International Criminal Justice Day?

Every 17 July, International Criminal Justice Day is held to mark the adoption of the Rome Statute and to remind governments across the globe of their responsibility to bring to justice perpetrators of grave human rights violations.

The United Nations General Assembly first recognized the need for a permanent international court to deal with the most serious crimes in the wake of the atrocities of World War II. On 17 July 1998, the international community reached a historic milestone when 120 States adopted the Rome Statute, the legal basis for establishing the world’s first permanent International Criminal Court (“ICC”). In 2002 the ICC was established in The Hague, in the Netherlands, and is a permanent international tribunal that can prosecute individuals for the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. International Criminal Justice Day was established in 2010, at the Review Conference of the Rome Statute in Kampala, Uganda.

Cambodia ratified the Rome Statute on 11 April 2002, which signaled the government’s commitment to upholding the principles of justice protected for by the Statute.

Why are the former Khmer Rouge leaders not on trial at the ICC?

Although Cambodia is a founding member of the ICC, the ICC can only hear cases about crimes that took place after its creation. The Khmer Rouge regime took power on 17 April 1975 and was overthrown on 7 January 1979 and thus does not fall under the ICC’s jurisdiction.

What are the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia?

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the “ECCC”), also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, is a court established to try the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge for violations of international law, including crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of genocide. Although established by both the Cambodian government and the United Nations, the ECCC is an independent Cambodian court with international participation and adheres to international standards.

What is happening at the ECCC?

The first trial hearing for Case 002/02 is set for 30 July 2014. Case 002/02 is the second part of the trial against the two remaining defendants, Khieu Samphan, Head of State, and Nuon Chea, second in command to Pol Pot. Out of the four original defendants of Case 002, one was found unfit to stand trial and the other died last year. The charges forming the basis for Case 002/02 include genocide against the Cham and the Vietnamese, forced marriage, and rape, whilst the alleged crime sites include the notorious S-21 Security Centre. Trials are open to the public.

On 7 August, the verdict of Case 002/01, the charges of which focused on alleged crimes against humanity related to the forced displacement of the population and alleged execution of Khmer Republic soldiers, will be announced.

Why is the ECCC important?

Although some may think there is little point in trying the former Khmer Rouge leaders so long after the fact whilst many of the accused are sick with age-related illness, or already dead, the fact remains that the ECCC is extremely important for Cambodia. Not only will it bring those most responsible to justice and provide psychological reparations for the thousands of victims and their relatives, it also has the potential to leave behind a crucial legacy – of promoting international standards relating to the right to a fair trial in Cambodia.

However, the Cambodian government has attempted to impede further investigations and has publicly stated its desire to prevent Cases 003 and 004, citing a threat to the country’s stability. The ECCC also faces critical funding restraints, which may result in a lack of funding to investigate these cases. The Cambodian government is partly to blame, having failed to fulfill its obligation to fund its share. The government’s interference and lack of political will in regard to Cases 003 and 004 not only undermines the principles of international justice to which the government has committed, but also the ECCC’s legacy, risking denying justice to the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

On this International Justice Day, the government of Cambodia needs to increase its efforts to protect and promote the independence of the ECCC to ensure criminal justice is served. Moreover, the government should engage in practical initiatives to ensure the ECCC legacy, such as training opportunities and practical guidance to lawyers and judges. In a country where corruption and impartiality are rife within the judiciary, this is extremely important.

How can I help to ensure international justice?

Use the #JusticeMatters hashtag on Twitter to commemorate International Criminal Justice Day on 17 July 2014, and to remind the Cambodian government of its obligations to ensure justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge.

Alysha Khambay, CCHR International Intern, contributed to this blog post.

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