Human & Constitutional Rights, Hot Topics


Country Reports

International Links

Regional Links

National Links


Web Resources

UN and Cambodia Agree on Court to Try Khmer Rouge

After more than five years of negotiations, the United Nations and Cambodia drafted an agreement in March 2003 to set up a war crimes court to try the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and are accused of causing the deaths of 1.7 million people through execution, starvation, disease and hard labor.


Talks began in 1997, when the Cambodian government asked the United Nations to help establish a tribunal like those in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, both of which were created by the United Nations Security Council to try war crimes suspects.

In 1999, a U.N. group of experts wrote a report calling for an international tribunal for Cambodia, citing the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of independence and failure to command public confidence. The report was rejected by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. In May 2000, the United Nations and Cambodia agreed to establish a "mixed" war crimes tribunal, to include both international and Cambodian judges and prosecutors. The deal was to have been enshrined in Cambodian law. In 2001, the Cambodian government passed a new law establishing “Extraordinary Chambers” in the Cambodian court system to prosecute the former Khmer Rouge leaders. But U.N. chief legal adviser Hans Corell charged that Cambodia had reneged on the accord, saying that the legislation omitted provisions to ensure U.N. oversight and to guarantee that prosecutors had the authority to pursue suspects shielded by amnesty.
Plan Criticized

In early 2002, the United Nations withdrew from negotiations with Cambodia after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan concluded that Prime Minister Hun Sen was not committed to the establishment of an impartial court with the independence to pursue war criminals. But in December 2002 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution, sponsored by France and Japan and supported by Cambodia and the United States, urging the Secretary General to reconsider. Cambodia and the United Nations returned to the negotiating table and arrived at their latest agreement in March, in which the Cambodian court system’s Extraordinary Chambers would have jurisdiction to try senior Khmer leaders “for the crimes and serious violations of Cambodian Penal law, international humanitarian law and custom, and international conventions recognized by Cambodia, that were committed during the period from 17 April 1975 to 6 January 1979.” In a report to the General Assembly evaluating the new agreement, the Secretary General stated that “there still remains doubt in some quarters regarding the credibility of the Extraordinary Chambers, given the precarious state of the judiciary in Cambodia…any deviation by the Government from the obligations undertaken could lead to the United Nations withdrawing its cooperation and assistance from the process.”

Human rights groups have criticized the new agreement. In a briefing paper, Human Rights Watch called the plan “deeply flawed,” expressing concern that the Cambodian government would interfere in the work of the tribunal, citing confusing and contradictory laws, and noting a lack of serious plans for the protection of witnesses, victims and court personnel. Mike Jendrzejczyk, a Human Rights Watch director, said on the organization’s web site that the proposal “represents the lowest standards yet for a tribunal with U.N. participation.”
  • Gary Jonathan Bass, Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
  • Steven R. Ratner and Jason S. Abrams, Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law: Beyond the Nuremberg Legacy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • William A. Schabas, Genocide in International Law: The Crime of Crimes, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Yuval Shany, The Competing Jurisdictions of International Courts and Tribunals, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Written May 16, 2003; Last updated May 29, 2003.

Human and Constitutional Rights Resource Page.

Hot Topics