Early one morning last September, buses filled with survivors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime and their families arrived in the capital, Phnom Penh. They traveled to the grounds of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to witness the court’s last proceedings: a final stroke of justice for the millions of people who suffered under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
The ECCC, also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, was established through an agreement between Cambodia and the United Nations signed in 2003; its hybrid judicial system combines local and foreign staff. But critics often questioned its vulnerability to political interference from the Cambodian government, led by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen—himself a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected. Over the years, the court spent nearly $340 million, resulting in just three convictions.
In its final act, the tribunal upheld the life sentence for former head of state Khieu Samphan, the last surviving leader on trial, who had appealed a 2018 conviction. In 2021, charges against the remaining accused in two untried cases were dismissed. The decision sparked controversy and again called into question the tribunal’s legitimacy; the local and international judges issued contradictory opinions. Irish Judge Maureen Harding Clark concluded that stopping the trials was “general and inflexible government policy.”