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Victims of one of the worst genocides in human history are beginning to find compensation through a specially established criminal court, but lengthy legal proceedings are stalling justice, says a human rights expert.
A joint Cambodian-United Nations court, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), was established in 2003 to try senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime – the ruling party which is held responsible for the death of 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.
The Khmer Rouge’s policies, atrocities and death camps wiped out a quarter of the country’s population.
But while the international court is able to trial ex-Khmer Rouge leaders, justice and human rights expert Dr Christoph Sperfeldt questions whether it is capable of delivering long-term justice for the nation.
“There are a lot of controversies surrounding the court, including whether it is sufficiently independent and the length of the proceedings,” he said.
Since 2003, only five former Khmer Rouge leaders have been summouned to appear before the court. But one had already died, while another had been ruled unfit to stand for trial because she was deemed too old.
“So I think Cambodians have mixed feelings nowadays. They want to see justice done and I think there is general support for the ECCC; it’s just they are asking the normal question of an international criminal court – that is, ‘why does it take so long?’
“And this is particularly unfortunate when you take into account the age of the accused,” said Sperfeldt.
A notable feature of the ECCC is its incorporation of victim participation in proceedings.
In only the second instance worldwide, victims of the regime are able to provide testimony to the court and claim reparations. Sperfeldt points out that it was an important way of ensuring local Cambodians were involved in the trials.
“Many other international criminal courts – like the one set up after the Yugoslav war – were all outside the country. So their impact on the country was minimal. Whereas the Cambodian court is in Phnom Penh; so people can go to the proceedings,” Sperfeldt said.
More than 160,000 had witnessed proceedings so far Sperfeldt pointed out. Eight thousand victims have initiated proceedings in the courts, with 4,000 of these seeking reparations for atrocities they sufferred.
But, non-monetary compensation was most likely to be given to victims, due to Cambodia being “too poor” to pay financial reparations.
“When the court was established there was an understanding that there wouldn’t be massive amounts of compensation,” Sperfeldt said. Collective and moral compensation – including building monuments to the dead and demarcating crime sites, provision of psychological counselling and support, and commemoration in the form of story collection and telling – would replace monetary payments.
While the ECCC may not immediately satisfy Cambodians’ desire for justice, Sperfeldt believed it was providing victims with an important framework to move on from a very dark chapter in the nation’s recent history.
“Criminal courts are limited in their mandate; they are there to prosecute and punish a very select few individuals,” he said.
“Since there is no other mechanism in place at the moment – there is no truth commission for example – you can imagine that all the expectations of the population in terms of justice are directed towards the court. “And it’s been clear from the outset that the court won’t be able to satisfy all these expectations.
“But I think that once the court completes its mandate, which will happen very soon, Cambodians will have the feeling that this is not all, that there is more to be said about [the past]. And there is now a space where Cambodians themselves can carry on the process of dealing with the past”.
Dr Sperfeldt is Regional Program Coordinator at the Asian International Justice Initiative (AIJI), a joint program of the East-West Center and UC Berkeley’s War Crimes Studies Center, where he supports regional human rights and justice efforts in Southeast Asia.
He was speaking at RegNet’s regular seminar series, and at a conference marking 20 years since the first democratic elections in Cambodia.