Digging-Up the Past, Finally: A Look into Cambodia’s Attempt at Retributive and Restorative Justice

Research poster by Jocelyn Grubb for Bishop’s University Research Week

By Jocelyn Grubb 

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed a fifth of Cambodia’s (then the Democratic of Kampuchea) population, totaling 1-2 million people. During the 20 tumultuous years which followed, there was a general resistance to “digging up past horrors”. The country and new government chose not to participate in official truth-seeking at the time and Cambodians in general showed little interest in speaking about that period.

However, once the last of the regime had been overthrown in 1999, Cambodians began to show an increased interest in learning their past and uncovering the truth of the Khmer Rouge regime. It was decided that justice would be sought through retributive trials. These tribunals enacted jointly by the Cambodian government and the UN were not expected to completely fulfill these wishes, but they were a start. This move towards justice validated the suffering of millions of Cambodians and finally proved that the past would not forgotten, or diminished. Rather, the past was to be addressed “slowly and unevenly”.



Pol Pot (really Solath Sar), seized Phnom Penh April 17th, 1975, and declared a new beginning of history-“Year Zero”. Pol Pot was not looking to create an agrarian utopia as other Khmer leaders, but led the initial regime of “death, terror, starvation, and genocide” in Cambodia. The Khmer rouge sought to abandon all that was western (post-Vietnam war), for example medicine, education, law, the elite class, urban centers, banks, and libraries, etc. It was a radical revolution to remake society. Cities were emptied cities,currency and markets were abolished, families were separated, and all aspects of life were made communal. Cambodia was transformed into an extreme collective –a nation of slave labourers–where all individual rights were forfeited for this “utopia”. It took twenty years of civil war post-Vietnam invasion in Cambodia and to remove the Khmer Rouge from power. In 1999 the last of the Khmer Rouge finally surrendered and the regime officially came to an end.


In reaction to the population’s increasing interest in justice for the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian National Assembly passed a law in 2001 to create a court to try the offenders of the most serious crimes during the regime. The court was named the “Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia”.The E.C.C.C’s goals were to include justice, truth, and national reconciliation. However, in order to achieve these goals, the Cambodian population needs to understand not only history, but what the trials involve. The trials “need to mean something to these people”, especially those living outside the capital.

The E.C.C.C. report states that “it is hoped that fair trials will ease the burden that weighs on the survivors”. It wanted the trials to be viewed as important for those remembering the past, but also for those of the future, especially younger generations learning Cambodian history. As of 2010, the rule of the Khmer Rouge is still not being taught in Cambodian classrooms. This hybrid court run by both Cambodian and international judges had lofty goals, and only began its proceedings nearly a decade after the 1997 UN offer of help.


The E.C.C.C were said to be the most anticipated trials since the 1945-1946 Nuremberg trials. Finally, people would people be able to ask the Khmer Rouge-“why”? However, the tribunals are problematic for several reasons: there is clear obstruction and corruption on behalf of the government, and most of all, because many low-level Khmer leaders still in power today. The impunity received by Khmer members, and their continued involvement in government is problematic. It sends the wrong message to the Cambodian public and discredits the justice process. Reconciliation is  difficult for Cambodians. Many survivors are still trying to forget their past, and others who want answers are hassled by the state.

One may wonder then, is justice even possible? It depends on what type. In a poll it was found that over 80% of Cambodians want justice for the Khmer leaders, however most said they simply wanted to know why and how the tragedies happened. They wanted an acknowledgement of responsibility.

In tribunals such as the E.C.C.C, one cannot hold all responsible accountable. One cannot equate millions of Cambodians who suffered to the imprisonment of select few Khmer leaders. That said, these tribunals are a form of symbolic justice. To go hand-in-hand with these tribunals, it is recommended that Cambodia focus on simultaneous restorative justice. The combination is seen as necessary for successful transitional justice. The possibility of a truth commission in Cambodia has been considered-its strengths, weaknesses, and feasibility taken into account.  A truth commission would allow all those who told the truth to forgo prosecution, and those who refused, to face it.  This form of justice would provide a more complete version of truth, and would permit the quicker resurfacing of past tragedies. The E.C.C.C method is, unfortunately, slower and allows thousands to go without consequence.

The impediments to victims seeking or achieving justice are great, and prevent any real healing. In order for Cambodia to proceed with its search for justice,  it must achieve what is called a  “human rights protective culture”. This is a culture where all social, economic, political, and cultural rights –as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–are upheld to the best of the state’s ability. The state must not be responsible for the violation of its own citizens’ rights. In order to achieve justice, the Cambodian government must also demonstrate its investment in the project. They must be seen fighting to hold the Khmer Rouge accountable. If not, violence will likely continue, if not worsen. In a society ripped apart and virtually silenced,  victims are in need of closure.


As years go by, Khmer leaders are aging, dying, or becoming unfit for trial. The slowness of the process is harmful to the desired outcome of justice. The time to act is now. Even though it has been difficult, Cambodians want to know the truth themselves, and want the international community to know the truth as well. The tribunals still important, despite the difficulties they face. They are essential for the healing process.

Cambodia today experiences relative peace (through the work of the international community and local actors), But, this peace is fading over time. Cambodia has become a “shallow democracy”, where there is “negative peace”.  With the government corruption and the numerous human rights violations latent in system, there is little hope for change. Cambodia still has a long way to go in order to reconcile its past.


Dicklitch, S. and Malik, A. (2010). “Justice, Human Rights, and Reconciliation in Postconflict Cambodia”. Human Rights Review. 11 (4), p515-530.

Doung, V. and Ear, S. “Traditional Justice Dilemma: The Case for Cambodia.” The Peace and Conflict Review, n.d.. Web.

Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. “Introduction to the ECCC.” Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, n.d.Web.

Hayner, P. (2011). Unspeakable Truths: Transitional Justice and the Challenge of Truth Commissions. Routledge, UK.

Meirio, A. “Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Process in Cambodia: The Perspective of Survivors.” United Nations Development Program-Indonesia, 2008. Web.

Smith, D. et al. “Special Report: Truth, Justice and reconciliation.” The Guardian, 2014. Web.

Webster, D.(ed). “Crime and (no) punishment: A symposium on impunity and international justice.” Maisonneuve, 2003 (58). Web.

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