ECCC's civil and common law mix “was the worst of all worlds”

10 September 2014 by Stephanie van den Berg

In August, the extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) convicted two high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders of crimes against humanity and sentenced them to life in prison. Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, were the first top-level Khmer Rouge officials to be held accountable for the regime's crimes. IJT asked Heather Ryan, who monitors the special UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia for the Open Society Justice Initiative, about the challenges of the case and the impact of its verdict.

The case against chief Khmer Rouge ideologue Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan was essentially a 'mini-trial' that focused almost entirely on forced evacuations [IJT-157]. The most serious crimes – genocide, forced labour, forced marriage, rape and internal purges – are due to be addressed in a second trial. How do you look back on the decision to split the case?

Heather Ryan (HR): It was so uncertain how long these accused would be able to stand trial, that it was not an unreasonable move at the time. On the other hand, a strong argument could be made that the entire case could have been tried in the two years it took for this case. There was a two-year trial to try a small portion of the case and now you have a delay, and – assuming the accused live – you are going to have another two- or three-year trial. That comes to a five-year trial, which was probably exacerbated by splitting the case.

These mass atrocity cases before international courts often attract complaints that trials are taking too long. Is this just inherent to such cases, or are there more specific problems with the ECCC?

Want to read more?

If you subscribe to a free membership, you can read this article and explore our full archive, dating back to 1997.

Subscribe now