Looking beyond legalism. The urgent need for people-centered justice processes in Cambodia


Louis Bickford

Emma, originally from Australia, has lived in Cambodia for over two decades. In 2016 she become a Cambodian citizen. She is the co-founder of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, the Cambodia Peace Gallery, step mum to three Cambodian children and a proud grandma. She is know for her peace work across the Asia Pacific region. 

Emma Leslie is the Executive Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Cambodia, where she has lived for 23 years since leaving Australia, where she grew up. She has also been involved in transitional justice initiatives in Cambodia throughout that time and is currently involved in the creation of a Peace Museum which, according to its website, is “designed firstly for young Cambodians, namely university students, to learn about these remarkable and innovative approaches to peacebuilding, contributing to positive national pride”.

In spite of efforts like the Peace Museum and the importance of various genocide sites around the country, the Cambodian experience with transitional justice is often especially associated with the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), informally known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, an initiative aimed at judicial accountability of top Khmer Rouge leaders for atrocities committed between 1977-1979. But for Emma, the extreme concentration of resources (more than $300 million since 2001) and attention on the ECCC has resulted in missed opportunities.   

Shortcomings of the ECCC

First, Emma points out that the ECCC provides only a fragmentary understanding of the deep history of Cambodia before, during, and since the 1977-1979 period. In fact, these events were the result of “so many different factors” including “the geopolitical forces of that time that both were against and supported different types of communism, particularly in the Cold War framework, so the US, the USSR, China, the dynamics between Vietnam and Cambodia .... and then, even further, hundreds of years of a Hindu Brahmin system veiled in a Buddhist system that creates a sort of God king that everybody down to the peasant at the bottom worships”. So, “if you put structural violence from cultural violence of the Hindu Brahmin system, and you add geopolitics to that, trying to find out who is responsible for the Khmer Rouge is a really, really challenging question. One that should be addressed, no doubt”. But the tribunal “boils it down to just a handful of humans who yes, were in part leaders of that movement, but are not entirely responsible for it”.

Emma would like to see more of a “storytelling” approach to understanding and grappling with the past in Cambodia. The ECCC’s judicial structure and its focus on a small number of individual perpetrators meant that “throughout the day, the proceedings would go on and different people would be brought in to testify. Now, this would be brilliant, perhaps like South Africa, if this was more storytelling. But there were some challenges with that”. She remembers one day when a witness was talking about a forced marriage during the genocide. “So, the people that were in the audience listening in their headsets in French and Khmer and English were getting really into this story … But much of his testimony had to be overruled, so the lawyers are interrupting the story constantly ... The people in the audience were getting so frustrated because they really want to hear the story and the judge and the lawyers are cutting the story off. So, the very population that the tribunal is supposed to serve, and supposed to help heal is completely confused by this very legalistic process about a particular period in time which they don't necessarily delineate, so when you talk to Cambodians, they talk about decades of violence that they've experienced, not specifically April 1975 to 1979”.

Insufficient attention to local needs and demands

Secondly, the ECCC “has been in some ways, a mismatch for some of the ways that Cambodians have healed themselves”, and has therefore taken energy and resources away from other, more homegrown, and arguably more relevant (and probably less expensive) ways of dealing with the past. She mentions that her husband, a Khmer Rouge survivor himself, “often talks about the framing of reconciliation and healing in the country as something that happened quite naturally inside communities and particularly led by religious communities”. An example is Pchum Ben [‘Ancestor’s Day’] as a “ceremony which happens every September and is the time that Cambodians honor their dead. She wishes that the process had done more to help “Cambodians to validate or more intentionally use processes that they already have inside their culture and system, that could be made more of in the recognition of dealing with the past”

Misallocated resources

Third, the ECCC’s price tag, “seems almost unjust or ludicrous in a country that's extremely poor” and “where people still require different types of medical care as a fallout from that particular period of injustice”. She concludes, “I think in Cambodia, if people are being asked, ‘Do you want a legal tribunal that costs this much or would you like a hospital?’ I don't know that many people would have chosen tribunal, but the question was ‘Would you like a tribunal or not?’ ‘Well, okay, sure. We'll take one, if this means that our leaders will be held to account’. 

Overall, she says, the field “got stuck in so much language like dealing with the past, like transitional justice, or transformative justice, or reparations or whatever, rather than maybe in each case, really working with people on what would work for them, asking what does justice look like to them, and what would help them move forward”.

Please send us your feedback and opinions to: tj@frient.de

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Emma Leslie

Issue: Radical Critical

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. But do its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? Which of its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices should be critically reviewed?

Guest moderator

Louis Bickford, CEO, Memria.org

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

This blog series examines the field of transitional justice through a critical lens, asking challenging questions and exploring ways in which it is relevant today. Through a small number of carefully-selected interviews, the series intends to provoke debate within the field and help lead to innovation and adaptation.


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