Another One Bites the Dust: Troubles of the ECCC

By Kate Bissonnette

The future of Cambodia's prosecution of former Khmer Rouge officials is in doubt after yet another judge's resignation due to interference. Source: Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Judge Laurent Kasper-Ansermet submitted his resignation from the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC, on March 19 after five tumultuous months as its international co-investigating judge. The United Nations and the Cambodian government established the tribunal to prosecute crimes against humanity by the former Khmer Rouge leadership, which ran the country for a terrifying three and a half years from April 1975 through January 1979, but the ECCC has struggled to demonstrate efficacy and impartiality. Kasper-Ansermet cited repeated obstruction by his Cambodian counterpart, the national co-investigating Judge You Bunleng, and the dysfunctional situation within the ECCC as reasons for his departure.

Kasper-Ansermet’s predecessor, Judge Blunk of Germany, resigned October 31, 2011, citing similar concerns. Though Kasper-Ansermet was appointed and approved by both the United Nations and Cambodian government as a reserve judge in 2010, Judge You Bunleng’s office refused to acknowledge him as Blunk’s replacement, arguing he needed to be permanently appointed. The Cambodian Supreme Court vetoed his nomination in January, but the UN special expert to the tribunal, David Scheffer, said Kasper-Ansermet had the clear authority to proceed with investigations.

The ECCC has so far managed to bring two cases, 001 and 002, to trial, but its future rests on cases 003 and 004. Those cases involve current members of the Cambodian government, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has said he will not allow them to go to trial because their prosecution could destabilize the country, though this assertion is dubious. Initial investigations into the cases were closed in April 2011, leading to allegations of political pressure and government interference in the court. Kasper-Ansermet reopened the cases in February and attempted to push them forward by notifying suspects of the charges against them in early March, without approval or cooperation from the Cambodian side of the court. The following week, drafters of the ECCC’s 2012 and 2013 budget failed to allocate resources or time to the cases; according to the drafters of the budget, the ECCC’s investigations and Pre-Trial Chamber are expected to be phased out by 2013.

Kasper-Ansermet released a 14 page memo on March 21 citing specific examples of how his office was blocked by his Cambodian counterparts, including not responding to official requests, not including documents in case files, and being denied access to translators, drivers, and even the official seal of the court. The authorities’ blatant interference in the ECCC raises a red flag about Cambodia’s ability to play a leadership role in human rights, good governance, and rule of law as it takes over as Chair of ASEAN this year.

In response to the memo, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said impunity for former Khmer Rouge officials will not be tolerated, and there is talk among analysts such as Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, that the United Nations could pull out of the court all together. The Cambodian government contends that the tribunal remains a model, independent court. The court was founded in 2003 in the hopes of obtaining justice for the millions of victims of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, but charges of political interference, delays, and perennial budgeting shortages call into question its effectiveness and whether the United Nations should continue to legitimize its proceedings.  That said, there was always a sense of where there is a will there is a way.

Despite the ECCC’s troubles, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced this week that his government will donate $1.7 million to the tribunal. However, now that Kasper-Ansermet has left, it is unclear if investigations into the remaining cases will continue, and the muted responses to Kasper-Ansermet’s resignation show that broad support for the ECCC is waning. What is clear is that there is little desire to do so on the Cambodian side of the court. If justice is to be served, it will require a strong push from the international community, but the will is wearing thin.

Ms. Kathleen Bissonnette is a Research Intern covering Cambodia for the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.



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