Justice for the Rohingya: Lessons from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

8 April

Sandra Smits

Sandra Smits

Programme Manager, Asia-Pacific Programme

The Cambodian case study illustrates the challenges of ensuring justice and accountability for the Rohingya in Myanmar.


Coast guards escort Rohingya refugees following a boat capsizing accident in Teknaf on 11 February 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

Coast guards escort Rohingya refugees following a boat capsizing accident in Teknaf on 11 February 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

International criminal justice provides a stark reminder that state sovereignty is not an absolute, and that the world’s most heinous crimes should be prosecuted at an international level, particularly where domestic systems lack the capacity or will to hold perpetrators to account. 

The post-Cold War period witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of international tribunals with jurisdiction over war crimes and serious human rights abuses in countries including Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Yugoslavia. With these processes approaching, or having reached the end of their dockets, many have called for the creation of new tribunals to address more recent conflicts, including the army crackdown in Myanmar in 2017 that resulted in evidence of crimes against humanity against the Rohingya

In January this year, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) imposed emergency provisional measures on Myanmar, instructing it to prevent genocidal violence against its Rohingya minority. But a final judgement is expected to take years and the ICJ has no way of enforcing these interim measures. Myanmar has already responded defiantly to international criticism

Model for justice

Myanmar is not the first country to face scrutiny for such crimes in Southeast Asia. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal was established in 1997 to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders for alleged violations of international law and serious crimes perpetrated during the Cambodian genocide. This provides an opportunity to consider whether the Tribunal can act as a ‘hybrid’ model for justice in the region. 

The first lesson that can be taken from the Cambodian context is that the state must have the political will and commitment to pursue accountability. It was indeed the Cambodian government itself, who requested international assistance from the United Nations (UN), to organize a process for holding trials. The initial recommendation of the UN-commissioned Group of Experts was for the trial to be held under UN control, in light of misgivings about Cambodia’s judicial system. Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected this assessment and in prolonged negotiations, continued to spearhead the need for domestic involvement (arguably, in order to circumscribe the search for justice). This eventually resulted in the creation of a hybrid body consisting of parallel international and Cambodian judges and prosecutors with supermajority decision-making rules.   

It is worth noting that the Hun Sen government initially chose to do business with former Khmer Rouge leaders, until it became more advantageous to embrace a policy of putting them on trial. It is possible to infer from this that there will be no impetus for action in Myanmar until it is domestically advantageous to do so. At present, this appetite is clearly lacking, demonstrated by de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi shying away from accountability and instead defending the government’s actions before the ICJ.

One unique aspect of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal has been the vast participation by the Cambodian people in witnessing the trials as well as widespread support for the tribunal. This speaks to the pent-up demand in Cambodia for accountability and the importance of local participation. While international moral pressure is clear, external actors cannot simply impose justice for the Rohingya when there is no domestic incentive or support to pursue this. The reality is that the anti-Rohingya campaign has galvanized popular support from the country’s Buddhist majority. What is more, the Rohingya are not even seen as part of Myanmar so there is an additional level of disenfranchisement.

Secondly, the Cambodian Tribunal illustrates the need for safeguards against local political interference. The ECCC was designed as national court with international participation. There was an agreement to act in accordance with international standards of independence and impartiality, but no safeguards in place against serious deficiencies in the Cambodian judicial system. Close alliances between judges and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, as well as high levels of corruption meant the tribunal effectively gave Hun Sen’s government veto power over the court at key junctures. Despite the guise of a hybrid structure, the Cambodian government ultimately retained the ability to block further prosecutions and prevent witnesses from being called. 

In Myanmar, political interference could be a concern, but given there is no popular support for justice and accountability for crimes committed against the Rohingya, the prospects of a domestic or hybrid process remain unlikely. However, there are still international options. The investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into crimes that may have taken place on the Myanmar–Bangladesh border represents a potential route for justice and accountability. The UN Human Rights Council has also recently established the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), mandated to collect and preserve evidence, as well as to prepare files for future cases before criminal courts.

Finally, the Cambodian case illustrates the culture of impunity in the region. The ECCC was conceived partly as a showcase for international standards of justice, which would have a ‘contagion effect’ upon the wider Cambodian and regional justice systems. 

Cambodia was notorious for incidents in which well-connected and powerful people flouted the law. This culture of impunity was rooted in the failure of the government to arrest, try and punish the Khmer Rouge leadership. The Tribunal, in holding perpetrators of the worst crimes to account, sought to send a clear signal that lesser violations would not be tolerated in the same way. Arguably, it did not achieve this in practice as Cambodia still has a highly politicized judicial system with high levels of corruption and clear limits to judicial independence

What this illustrates is that the first step towards accountability is strengthening domestic institutions. The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar has urged domestic authorities to embrace democracy and human rights, highlighting the need to reform the judicial system in order to ensure judicial independence, remove systemic barriers to accountability and build judicial and investigatory capacity in accordance with international standards. Based on this assessment, it is clear that domestic institutions are currently insufficiently independent to pursue accountability.

The ECCC, despite its shortcomings, does stand as proof that crimes against humanity will not go completely unpunished. However, a process does not necessarily equal justice. The region is littered with justice processes that never went anywhere: Indonesia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. International recourse is also challenging in a region with low ratification of the ICC, and the absence of regional mechanisms like the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (although their remit is not mass atrocity prosecutions). 

The Cambodian case study illustrates the challenges of ensuring justice and accountability within the region. The end of impunity is critical to ensure peaceful societies, but a purely legalistic approach will fail unless it is supported by wider measures and safeguards. It is these challenges, that undermine the prospects for ensuring justice for the Rohingya within Myanmar.

Source: International Law and Governance

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Iraq Tribunal: US Pulling Out

1 May

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Rowdy sessions of the Iraq High Tribunal attracted sensational daily news coverage while Saddam Hussein was being tried. However, following his grim execution in December 2006, coverage all but evaporated. The foreign press and most western monitors packed their bags and left, and television reporting in Iraq dwindled. Now even the United States Department of Justice, which initially provided key financial and political support, is quietly withdrawing its advisers. So what is happening at the Tribunal and why are the Americans pulling out?

Sonya Sceats

Sonya Sceats

Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

Source: International Law and Governance

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Piu’ Europei Magazine – n. 52

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Can Ukraine’s Appeal to the International Courts Work?

3 April

Kateryna Busol

Kateryna Busol

Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

First in a two-part series analysing why Ukraine’s attempts at international justice are worth taking – and outlining how the impact goes far beyond just the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Part one examines the response of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to the possibility of holding Russia accountable as a state.


Rally in support of keeping Crimea as part of Ukraine. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Rally in support of keeping Crimea as part of Ukraine. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Russia’s ongoing occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and support of separatist hostilities in the eastern provinces of Donbas have resulted in 1.5 million internally displaced persons, 3,000 civilians killed, and a growing list of alleged violations of international law and socio-economic hardship.

But Ukraine is struggling in its efforts to hold Russia accountable – either as a state or through individual criminal responsibility – as it cannot unilaterally ask any international court to give an overall judgment on the conflict.

So it focuses on narrower issues, referring them to authorised adjudication and arbitration platforms such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), European Court of Human Rights, UNCLOS arbitration, and the International Criminal Court (ICC). These options are limited, but still worth taking – and their relevance is proving to be far wider than the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Policy of cultural eradication

In 2017, Ukraine initiated proceedings against Russia at the ICJ on the basis of two international treaties: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), with regard to Crimea; and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (ICSFT), with regard to Donbas.

Under the CERD, Ukraine alleges Russia has carried out a policy of cultural eradication of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea, including enforced disappearances, no education in the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages, and the ban of the Mejlis, the main representative body of the Crimean Tatars.

Under the ICSFT, Ukraine alleges Russia has supported terrorism by providing funds, weapons and training to illegal armed groups in eastern Ukraine. In particular Ukraine alleges Russian state responsibility – through its proxies – for downing the infamous MH17 flight.

Both these treaties are binding upon Ukraine and Russia and entitle an individual state party to refer a dispute concerning them to the ICJ, but certain procedural pre-conditions must first be exhausted. These include a failed attempt to settle a dispute either through negotiations or the CERD Committee (for the CERD) or unsuccessful negotiations and arbitration (for the ICSFT).

Russia challenged Ukraine’s compliance with the pre-conditions, but the ICJ disagreed with Russia’s submission that Ukraine had to resort both to negotiations and to the CERD Committee. For the first time, the court clarified these procedures under the CERD were two means to reach the same aim, and therefore alternative and not cumulative.

Requiring states to avail of both procedures before going to the ICJ would undermine the very purpose of the CERD to eliminate racial discrimination promptly, and ensure the availability of effective domestic protection and remedies.

The relevance of this clarification transcends the Ukraine-Russia dispute. With the rise of discriminatory practices, from populist hate-filled rhetoric endangering vulnerable communities to large-scale persecution such as that of the Rohingyas, the UN’s principal judicial body is sending a clear larger message to the world: such practices are unacceptable and must be dealt with expeditiously and efficiently. If states fail to do so, there are now fewer procedural impediments to do it internationally.

The ICJ also confirmed Ukraine had complied with both procedural preconditions under the ICSFT and that it would give judgement on the alleged failure of Russia to take measures to prevent the financing of terrorism. The outcome of this will be of great importance to the international community, given the general lack of international jurisprudence on issues of terrorism.

The court’s interpretation of knowledge and intent in terrorism financing, as well as clarification of the term ‘funds’, is particularly relevant both for the Ukraine-Russia case and for international law.

As the final judgement may take several years, the ICJ granted some provisional measures requested by Ukraine in April 2017. The court obliged Russia to ensure the availability of education in Ukrainian and enable the functioning of the Crimean Tatar representative institutions, including the Mejlis.

When Russia contested Ukraine’s references to the alleged Stalin-ordered deportation of the Crimean Tatars and the rule of law in the Soviet Union being hypocritical, by arguing that history did not matter, the court disagreed.

In fact, Judge James Crawford emphasised the relevance of the ‘historical persecution’ of Crimean Tatars and the role of Mejlis in advancing and protecting their rights in Crimea ‘at the time of disruption and change’.

These conclusions are important reminders that the historical inheritance of injustices inflicted on vulnerable groups should be taken into account when nations address their imperial legacies.

The court’s provisional measures and Judge Crawford’s position are particularly relevant in light of Russia’s policy of the total – territorial, historical, cultural – ‘russification’ of Crimea, as they highlight the role of the historical background for assessing the alleged discriminatory and prosecutorial policy of Russia’s occupying authorities against the Crimean Tatars.

The ICJ’s judgement on the merits of this as well as other human rights, and terrorism issues of Crimea and Donbas will be an important consideration for the international community in its view of the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict and the sanctions policy against Russia.

The development of this case also has a mutually catalysing impact on Ukraine’s efforts to establish those individually criminally responsible for atrocities in Crimea and Donbas, through domestic proceedings and through the International Criminal Court.

Ukraine’s attempts to seek individual criminal responsibility for gross abuses in Donbas and Crimea at the International Criminal Court (ICC) are assessed in part two of this series, coming soon.

Source: International Law and Governance

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Seventy Years of the Geneva Conventions: What of the Future?

24 March

Seventy years after the adoption of the Geneva Conventions, there are challenges that remain to be addressed. This briefing takes three pertinent examples, and discusses possibilities for addressing them.

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard

Associate Fellow, International Law Programme


Rescue of the wounded in Duma city by Syrian Red Crescent paramedics, 2 February 2018. Photo: Samer Bouidani/NurPhoto/Getty

Rescue of the wounded in Duma city by Syrian Red Crescent paramedics, 2 February 2018. Photo: Samer Bouidani/NurPhoto/Getty


  • The 70th anniversary of the adoption of the 1949 Geneva Conventions was commemorated in 2019. But violations of the Conventions and of the 1977 Additional Protocols are widespread.
  • Contemporary conflicts have been marked by violations of some of the foundational rules of international humanitarian law (IHL) relating to the protection of the wounded and sick and of providers of medical assistance.
  • A further area of IHL that has come under strain and scrutiny are the rules regulating humanitarian relief operations and their application to sieges and blockades.
  • War has a huge impact on children, and the treatment of children in armed conflict is another area of the law that requires further attention.
  • In the current political climate, it is unlikely that new treaties will be negotiated to address emerging issues or uncertainties in the law.
  • Other measures must be explored, including the adoption of domestic measures to implement existing law; support for processes that interpret the law; and initiatives to promote compliance with the law by organized armed groups.
  • One overarching challenge is the interplay between IHL and counterterrorism measures. It can undermine the protections set out in IHL, and hinder principled humanitarian action and activities to promote compliance with the law by organized armed groups.

Source: International Law and Governance

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