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A lack of justice for victims of the Khmer Rouge

Forthcoming publications by Sara Ochs, a Legal Method & Communication Fellow at Elon Law, and subsequent presentations to international scholars will explain how a "hybrid" tribunal designed to prosecute war criminals in Southeast Asia is on the verge of collapse.

Elon Law LMC Fellow Sara Ochs

An estimated 2 million people perished during the late 1970s at the hands of a brutal Communist regime that ruled Cambodia after overthrowing a democratic government.

Forty years later - with $300 million spent under the auspices of justice - the number of people convicted of their role in the genocide? Three.

And according to one Elon Law faculty, that might be the final number, as political events in Cambodia threaten to permanently derail a special tribunal formed in 2006 to investigate and prosecute leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime.

An essay by Sara Ochs, a Legal Method & Communication Fellow at Elon Law, has been accepted for publication in a prestigious journal at the University of Virginia, and Ochs will expand on that work in international presentations on the same topic scheduled for 2019.

“What Hun Sen’s Re-Election Means for the Fate of Cambodian Justice” will appear in the Virginia Journal of International Law Digest. Ochs’s article details the Cambodian prime minister’s ongoing efforts to undermine the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, an international “hybrid” criminal tribunal jointly established by the Cambodian government and the United Nations to prosecute those most responsible for the Khmer Rouge regime.   

Hun Sen defected from the Khmer Rouge and has served as Cambodia’s prime minister for more than three decades. In that time, he has built a government composed of numerous ex-Khmer Rouge commanders and cadre who defected prior to the regime’s fall.

Despite his early support for UN assistance in bringing ex-Khmer Rouge leaders, Hun Sen quickly backed off the idea. Notwithstanding Hun Sen’s claims that a Khmer Rouge tribunal might create “national instability,” the ECCC commenced operations in 2007 pursuant to a statute incorporated into Cambodian law, “becoming the first and only U.N.-created tribunal to be the product of domestic legislation.”

Since the tribunal’s creation, Hun Sen has been successful in limiting the role of investigators and prosecutors in bringing former regime leaders to trial. Hun Sen’s re-election in July 2018 appears to have sealed the fate of the ECCC.

“For now, there remains increasingly diminishing hope that the ECCC may move forward with prosecution of named defendants and even less hope that it will commence investigations into more of the thousands of surviving culpable Khmer Rouge offenders,” Ochs writes. “Until this changes, Cambodia will remain a nation eagerly awaiting a justice which likely will never come.”

Ochs will also present her scholarly work, including her working paper, in 2019 at “International Law Under Pressure,” a workshop jointly hosted by the British International Studies Association and the University of Glasgow. The same presentation has been selected for the annual meeting of the AALS on its “New Voices in Human Rights and International Law” panel.

Both presentations will expand on the theme of her essay and her working paper with a deeper look at the way the ECCC has limited its own role in the investigation and prosecution of alleged war criminals.

Ochs joined the Elon Law faculty from the New Orleans office of Akerman LLP, where she defended financial institutions and mortgage servicers in state and federal litigation. She earlier served as a law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Carl J. Barbier of the Eastern District of Louisiana. She currently serves as the Year in Review editor and vice chair of the American Bar Association's International Courts and Judicial Affairs Committee.

Ochs is a 2014 graduate of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. She graduated second in her class after serving on the Loyola Law Review, as a member of Loyola's Willem C. Vis Moot International Commercial Arbitration Team, and as both a teaching and research assistant.

International criminal law is where Ochs plans to focus her scholarship, with an emphasis on international hybrid criminal tribunals. Her research will look specifically at the international prosecution of genocide and crimes against humanity committed in Southeast Asia - both the ECCC in Cambodia and the anticipated international prosecution of the genocide committed in Myanmar.

Eric Townsend,
9/25/2018 2:25 PM