Significant events demand equally great public awareness, debate, and response, but I want to encourage a broader view of the importance of this moment. It has taken decades to establish the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), and a mere ten years have passed since its creation. Indeed, more than seven years have passed since the initial trial commenced in Case 002, and some of the accused have passed away, escaping justice. Many victims have died, and many families still have no idea of what happened with their loved ones; such privation provokes painful speculation on how they might have suffered and often is worse than knowing.
Our broader view of this moment must acknowledge how long justice has taken and how much it has cost. But we should not let the shortcomings of this court overshadow its significance. The ECCC has successfully brought to the attention and the understanding of the Cambodian people many important concepts of justice and the importance of the rule of law. Surviving victims who experience these trials appreciate the emphasis placed on these values. Although the human pursuit of justice is often scarred by imperfection, the survivors realise a sense of vindication for their suffering as society acknowledges and pursues justice against the perpetrators of the horrors to which they were subjected.
The conclusion of Case 002 will provoke a variety of responses and reflection among the Cambodian people. However, it will affirm the surviving victims’ collective humanity and validate their horrible suffering and losses.
For our younger generations, having come of age in a Cambodia unencumbered by the horror of war, starvation, genocide, or mass atrocities, these proceedings will serve as a grim reminder of human potential for depravity, accented by the myriad scarring, both physical and psychological, that persist in Cambodian society.
Case 002 affirms the supremacy of justice, providing a fitting closure to this horrible chapter in Cambodian history, even when the wounds run deep. Case 002 also has significant value as a means of building awareness, understanding and caution in the minds and hearts of future generations through integration into the educational curricula of our schools and universities. It illustrates the horror of inhumanity that can result when population does not exercise due diligence in asserting its interests and priorities, surrendering itself instead to would-be dictators and tyrants and their perverted extremist ideologies.
Many sober lessons that can be gleaned from the shortcomings, mistakes, and deficiencies of the trial process and its outcomes. The work and lessons of the ECCC and other international criminal tribunals offer much food for thought for the importance of vigilance and participation in the political process not only for Cambodians, but the international legal system and its anticipation of and response to mass atrocities.
We must value the importance of this moment and exploit it to affirm our individual and collective commitment to each other, to proactive engagement in our society and to exercising early caution as the impact of future events begins to reveal itself. Courts execute justice, protect the rule of law, and stand as guardians at the gate, but the burden of reconstructing and reinvigorating post-conflict societies lies with the people. Surviving victims of mass atrocities may wait patiently for relief, recognition, and assistance, but together we must ensure that the resolution occurs earlier rather than later. Post-conflict justice does not reside purely in the narrow channels of prosecutorial process and judicial adjudication. Conceiving it more broadly, we acknowledge that those channels must be enriched by broad commitments to preventive education, victim recognition and memorial initiatives, and restorative health care, counseling, and other social services contemporaneously with prosecution and adjudication.
Youk Chhang is the Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia