In 2009, the Japanese government gave Cambodia over $2 million to build a permanent center for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to store its archives and help students and scholars from around the world study the war crimes trials taking place here.
A statement announcing the donation said the center would “keep the outcome of the Tribunal for the Cambodian society as a legacy of the ECCC and will serve as a token of remembrance and non-recurrence of the Khmer Rouge regime.”
More than four years later, the center has long since been built using the Japanese money, but it stands empty on a lonely patch of land in Sen Sok district, a token only of the ECCC’s perennial funding woes and its inability to mount a sustained and coherent legacy program.
The Cambodian government is technically responsible for funding its operations, but has not yet managed to come up with the money. Half of the four-story building is used for the headquarters of the Bar Association of Cambodia; the other half is fully furnished but totally unoccupied.
“There is no activity at all, just some tables, chairs and platforms inside,” said Tith Chenglorn, a police lieutenant who has been paid to guard the quiet site since November 2012. “There are no people.”
Fumio Goto, the first secretary for the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh, said the Japanese government would not fund the center’s operations and was still waiting for the Cambodian government to do so.
“It’s about the Cambodian side right now,” he said. “Until now, the Cambodian side has a difficulty about the budget problems. We hope that they have prepared the remaining equipment, necessary equipment…. Earl[ier] is better.”
Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said he was unaware of the building and referred all questions to the ECCC. Neth Pheaktra, a spokesman for the court, said there was simply no money available to embark on a sustained legacy project at the moment. He pointed out that the court sought funds from international donors for legacy initiatives in 2012 and were turned down cold.
“ECCC had seek the financial support from donors for the work on Legacy of the ECCC in its budget plan for 2012-2013, but the donors countries request to postpone the Legacy component because the priority is to ensure the budget for function of the court,” he wrote in an email message.
“Regarding to the transfer of legal documents and Archives, the ECCC Management is in discussion how to process and use this building for the interest of the public,” he added.
The Legal Documentation Center is not the only one of the court’s legacy initiatives to have languished. In early 2010, the ECCC announced a major project to work together with the War Crimes Study Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University to develop a Virtual Tribunal project that would archive the ECCC’s proceedings online. The project was touted as a “groundbreaking” way to ensure the court’s legacy even after it concluded its trials, and was meant to include digitized archival documents, interviews with court personnel and witnesses, personal accounts of life under the Khmer Rouge, online learning modules, and distance education initiatives for Cambodian villagers.
In addition to housing physical archives, the Sen Sok building was also expected to serve as the headquarters for the Virtual Tribunal. But the project, which launched in 2011, has now been completely canceled—discontinued for lack of funding, according to the ECCC’s international spokesman, Lars Olsen.
Heather Ryan, who monitors the ECCC for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said it was a shame to see the Legal Documentation Center standing empty when it should have long since been filled with researchers.
“Projects such as the Virtual Tribunal, originally planned to be housed in the space, are necessary to promote any positive legacy of the ECCC for the national legal system,” she said.
“The failure to plan for and carry out such projects, even after generous donations have been made to launch them, is a troubling indication of the government’s limited commitment to rule of law reform and to promoting a positive legacy from the court.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)