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Cambodia finally gets its day in court

By Verghese Mathews - posted Thursday, 25 May 2006

More people in Cambodia have heard about Dame Silvia Cartwright in the past fortnight than at any time before, arguably, more than even when she was appointed the Governor-General of New Zealand in 2001, a position she will hold until August.

Unexpectedly, quietly and slowly, Dame Silvia is coming into the lives of the Cambodian people, the kingdom's robust media and its fractious politics, with her appointment as one of the international judges for the forthcoming Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Snippets in the media and the chat lines speak highly of her distinguished career as a lawyer, a jurist and a High Court judge, in fact the first woman to be appointed to that high post in New Zealand. Mention has also been made of her prominent role in the fight to eliminate discrimination against women - a celebrated cause in Cambodia.


There are 12 other international judges and prosecutors from Asia, Europe and North America, all nominated by the United Nations, about which, also, very little is known in Cambodia.

There is, therefore, increasing curiosity and a resulting awareness about the international judges for the first-ever trial of this nature in Asia. However, in sharp contrast, rather words have been reserved for at least one of the 17 Cambodian judges and prosecutors chosen by the highest local judicial body, the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, headed by King Norodom Sihamoni for the tribunal. This reaction is neither unexpected nor surprising.

Still, it is a remarkable achievement that the proposed tribunal has finally reached this far from its genesis in 1997 when the then Co-Prime Ministers Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Samdech Hun Sen wrote to the UN Secretary-General for assistance in establishing a trial to bring to justice the perpetrators of crimes committed during the ultra-Maoist Pol Pot regime.

What is probably long forgotten is that the prime reason for seeking UN assistance was not merely because the crimes had an international dimension or relevance, but more so because of the explicit admission that the Cambodian judiciary neither had the expertise nor the resources to conduct such a complex trial.

Some background is useful for perspective. Under the Khmer Rouge most of the judiciary either died or were killed, as were an estimated 1.7 million other Cambodians. The more fortunate escaped the clutches of the regime and resettled in third countries. The result was that when the Khmer Rouge was finally ousted from Phnom Penh in 1979 by invading Vietnamese forces, the newly installed Cambodian government had to build the judiciary from scratch. That was necessarily a painfully slow process for a cash-strapped and inadequately-trained government that was simultaneously working at building an education service, a health service and an administrative service - all from scratch.

Invariably trusted community elders and senior party officials were chosen by the new government's politburo to carry out primary judicial functions though, undoubtedly in the earlier years, the main objective of the emerging judiciary was to ensure the social stability of the fledgling regime.


This, then, was how the present day Cambodian judiciary began some 27 years ago. In the interim, students were sent overseas for training, particularly to Vietnam initially, and gradually an adequately trained coterie has taken its place in the judiciary, though there are still some from the earlier intakes awaiting retirement.

Detractors point out that the Cambodian judiciary is not among the more respected institutions in the country. This unfortunately is so. However, there are those who counter that it is still grossly unfair to paint the whole institution with one broad brush because of a few. Where the tribunal is concerned, given its very structure and transparency, the Cambodian judges will invariably come under greater scrutiny and will be benchmarked against the best of international judges. The hope is that the total experience will contribute to, and accelerate the maturity of, the Cambodian judiciary.

The tribunal comes with a long name - Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea. It is popularly known by the shorter name, "Extraordinary Chamber"s or "EC".

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About the Author

Verghese Mathews, a former Singapore ambassador to Cambodia, is a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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