Today marks more than 26 years since the Royal Government of Cambodia made the formal request to the UN for support in establishing what is now the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), known as a hybrid court, to prosecute the serious crimes and human rights violations during the Khmer Rouge Regime (April 17, 1975 to January 6, 1979).
It is 17 years since the first national and international judges and prosecutors were sworn in, and it is 13 years since the first conviction was recorded.
During that time, the UN has worked to support the Cambodian government and people in the establishment, operations and continuation of the ECCC, recognising the vital role it has played, and will continue to play, in reconciling Cambodia’s tragic past.
This is not however a UN body or a UN court. It was and remains a Cambodian institution and achievement, and one that the UN has been committed to supporting.
That support and collaboration are testament to the strong relationship between the UN and the Cambodian nation – one that continues in the opening of this Resource Centre today.
Unprecedented public awareness work
The work of the Court cannot be understood purely from the point of cases and convictions. Its vital functions play out against a broader canvas – remembering and reconciling a troubling past.
The education function of the ECCC for the Khmer Rouge history cannot be understated as it serves to prevent such serious crimes from happening again either in Cambodia or elsewhere.
It is estimated that almost 250,000 people attended trial and appeal hearings of the tribunal, while more than 400,000 people have been exposed to the work of the ECCC through outreach activities.
It is vital that the lessons of the past are not forgotten and that they form part of the Cambodian narrative, highlighting the vital role of human rights and the value of tolerance, resilience and peace.
Delivery on the SDGs
The work of the ECCC can also be seen as evidence of the Cambodian government’s commitment to delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and, in doing so, ensuring no Cambodians are left behind.
Building confidence in public institutions, strengthening the rule of law and the judiciary and fostering civic empowerment through participation and knowledge-sharing in the justice process are all consistent with sustainable development.
These constitute SDG 16 and form the foundation upon which many of the other SDGs can be built.
Although the courtroom work of the ECCC has drawn to a close, the value of the tribunal and its legacy, including extensive archives and resources, will go on – beneficial not only for Cambodians but also for all humankind.
It is vital that the important work the tribunal has undertaken – and the way in which it has undertaken the work – is not consigned to the past. Instead, it should remain vital and alive, integrated into the education system in high schools, universities and professional training and research programs.
For those engaged with the legal profession, be they law students, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, or policymakers, the work of the ECCC is an important touchstone of both Cambodian jurisprudence and public policy. Its relevance and legal best practices to those reforming and refining the Cambodian justice system will only grow.
And this is equally true for those outside the legal world. There are lessons and issues that will bear fruit for historians, health workers, anthropologists, and scholars from across the spectrum of academic and policy interest.
Making sure that this body of work – procedural and substantive – is not lost, but instead is made as open as possible to the Cambodian people and international community, will ensure that the legacy of courage left by victims and their families can be honoured and the process of national reconciliation can go on.
Cambodia’s unique position to share her experience and lessons learned
The ECCC is one of only a handful of similar extraordinary courts. The steadfast political will to seek justice and reconciliation offers lessons for other nations. Cambodia is in a unique position to share this experience within ASEAN and the world.
The legacy of the ECCC, as represented by the Resource Centre where it is collected and catalogued, is a beacon of hope arising from an otherwise dark and terrible night.
Be it bilaterally or through ASEAN, the South-South Cooperation Initiative or the UN Peacebuilding Commission, I encourage the custodians of the ECCC legacy to continue to ensure its work and worth are shared.
“The ECCC has demanded that Khmer Rouge leaders be held accountable for their atrocities and provided a voice for the victims and survivors of the regime. Their voices are more important than ever, as hate speech, abuse, discrimination and harassment are rampant in every corner of the globe.
By learning to recognise the early warning signs of genocide and other atrocities and to recognise the values of inclusion and dignity, we can build a foundation for a future where such horrors cannot happen again,”said UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, when he visited Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in 2022.
Jo Scheuer is UN Resident Coordinator in Cambodia.
The views expressed in this article are his own.