Khmer Rouge Sentence a Milestone, but Cambodia’s Justice System Remains Fragile

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September 3, 2014

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia last month sentenced two former senior Khmer Rouge leaders to life in prison for crimes against humanity. The Khmer Rouge’s 88-year-old chief ideologist and No. 2 leader, Nuon Chea, and its 83-year-old former head-of-state, Kheiu Samphan, were found guilty of murder, political persecution, and other inhuman acts that were responsible for the lives of 1.7 million Cambodians during the genocide from 1975 to 1979.

The UN-backed court’s long-anticipated verdict made headlines in major international and national newspapers, and the international community welcomed the decision, saying that justice has finally been brought to the people of Cambodia. Above, Nuon Chea during a Trial Chamber hearing. Photo/Flickr user Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia

The UN-backed court’s long-anticipated verdict made headlines in major international and national newspapers, and the international community welcomed the decision, saying that justice has finally been brought to the people of Cambodia. Above, Nuon Chea during a Trial Chamber hearing. Photo/Flickr user Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia

The UN-backed court’s long-anticipated verdict made headlines in major international and national newspapers, and the international community welcomed the decision, saying that justice has finally been brought to the people of Cambodia. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement to acknowledge the historic decision: “More than 30 years after the Khmer Rouge slaughtered some 1.7 million people, Cambodians have received a small measure of justice. …[The verdict] is a milestone for the Cambodian people who have suffered some of the worst horrors of the 20th century.”

Last month’s sentence undeniably brought some justice to the people of Cambodia. However, the verdict does not diminish the massive challenges facing Cambodia today. For my mother, who is now in her 60s and lost three uncles to the genocide, the sentence was just another ordinary day. She agreed that, “It’s justice. They did terrible things to us.” But when asked how she feels about the court’s decisions, she simply said, “It has been 30 years, so everyone moves on. It’s my family, my children, and my everyday life that I now care about most.”

Like my mother, many Cambodians that lost family members and friends have paid little attention to the work of the court. Many are still struggling in poverty, trying to earn enough income to feed their family. According to the World Bank’s most recent poverty assessment report, the poverty rate in Cambodia dropped from 53 percent in 2004 to 20.5 percent in 2011. However, the report warns that though Cambodia’s “near-poor” may have escaped poverty, they remain vulnerable to even the slightest economic shocks.

Despite the tribunal’s success story, its legacy does not reflect today’s judicial system in Cambodia. Widespread corruption and impunity have weakened the court system for decades. The courts are largely seen as working under political influences. For example, on July 15, seven recently elected politicians from the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) were arrested during a street brawl at Freedom Park. The Phnom Penh municipal court charged them with incitement and leading an insurrectional movement. Some analysts said the arrests prompted the opposition party to strike a deal on July 22 to end the year-long political stalemate following the July 2013 elections which it claimed was rigged. The boycott effectively ended, and the opposition party is now joining the parliament.

In May, the Cambodian government passed three new judiciary laws, which have been criticized by the international community and civil society for concerns that they would further undermine judicial independence and would strengthen the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s control over the country’s courts. The laws give most key decisions to the Ministry of Justice, and their passage threatens to prevent any meaningful reforms to the fragile judicial system in the future.

While last month’s milestone will in many ways help Cambodia move forward from its dark history, recent setbacks reveal that more needs to be done to ensure Cambodia’s smooth transition to democracy.

Menghun Kaing is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Cambodia. She can be reached at Menghun.Kaing@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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