Figuring victims at the Khmer Rouge Tribunals

When Dr Maria Elander first attended a hearing in the trial against the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, she was struck by the communal sense of the hearing.

When Dr Maria Elander first attended a hearing in the trial against the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, she was struck by the communal sense of the hearing.

Seated in the public gallery amongst 400 members of the community, she watched as Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were tried for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Despite more than 30 years having passed since the events the public gallery has often been filled to the brim, displaying a profound public interest in the proceedings.

“When the accused entered the Chamber a gasp went through the Public Gallery,” says Dr Elander. “After so long and so much suffering, finally the surviving leaders were appearing before the bench and before us. Everyone was holding their breath in anticipation, and that sense of communal experience has remained with me.”

Dr Elander is a lecturer in criminology at the La Trobe Law School and has been researching how victims are represented in criminal law trials. For her the Khmer Rouge Tribunals provide a unique situation of victim representation.

“Holding the trials in Cambodia has allowed the Tribunal to play a direct part in victim outreach and education,” says Dr Elander. “It has sparked greater interest in the regime, triggering a range of cultural, historical and educational activities concerning aspects of the regime.”

Dr Elander’s research has been released as a book, Figuring Victims in International Criminal Justice: The case of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, published by Routledge. She believes the tribunal’s efforts move beyond that of traditional criminal proceedings to provide public engagement.

“By operating within Cambodia, the tribunal has a direct connection to the victims concerned in a way many other international criminal law courts have lacked.” says Dr Elander. “It allows victims of the regime to give testimony; some appear as civil parties, others sit amongst the visiting groups in the spectator seating. Victims have come to constitute and represent the link between international criminal law and the enterprise of transitional justice.”

Dr Elander’s research will now focus on visualising international law and justice, and the role that photographs, maps and paintings can play in international law.

“Visual documentation presented before the Khmer Rouge Triibunal has had a profound effect, not just on the rulings, but to the viewers as well,” she says. “By involving the community through programs such as site tours, lectures, and exhibitions they’re expanding the role and purpose of international criminal justice.”

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