See Rachel Hughes most recent contributions to Society & Space: Ordinary theatre and extraordinary law at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal


Before the blessing ceremony, ECCC grounds, 31 March 2006. Photo courtesy of ECCC Public Affairs Section.

March 31 this year marked ten years since the ceremony pictured above, a Khmer Buddhist blessing of the courtroom and compound of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. This event is one of many starting points of the tribunal, more correctly known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

The ECCC is an internationalised effort to bring to account “senior leaders and those most responsible” for crimes committed in Cambodia during Khmer Rouge rule between April 1975 and January 1979. It is widely held that these crimes contributed to the death of around two million people, or one in five Cambodians, with millions more who suffered and survived. Three individuals, across two ECCC cases, have so far been found guilty of crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Convention.

The 2003 Tribunal Agreement may be considered an earlier starting point for the ECCC. This Agreement, many years in the negotiating, was signed between the United Nations and Cambodia at the Chaktomuk Theatre in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. As I discuss in my paper, “Ordinary Theatre and Extraordinary Law at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal,” the choice of location was from far from coincidental on the part of the Cambodian government.


The theatre takes its name from the auspicious locale in the far ground of the photograph here. The area known as Chaktomuk (four faces), is formed by the brief confluence of two rivers. These are the Tonle Sap/ Bassac River (the lower water body pictured, which continues its flow southwards, just visible below the wing of the plane) and the Mekong River (the upper water body).

In 1979, only months after the Khmer Rouge had been toppled by Vietnamese and Cambodian Renakse (anti-Khmer Rouge) forces, the Chaktomuk Theatre hosted a trial in absentia of Khmer Rouge leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary. Legally flawed, the trial was internationally derided as Vietnamese “puppetry.” The 2003 Agreement-signing ceremony drew on Chaktomuk as the site of the 1979 trial. It reminded those internationals celebrating the Agreement for a new tribunal of their historical silence on Khmer Rouge crimes.

The ECCC was eventually located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, in a newly-built military complex remodeled as a court room, detention facility and administration building (pictured in the opening photograph).



A signboard outside the ECCC complex featuring portrait photographs of the four former Khmer Rouge leaders originally accused in ECCC Case 002. Ieng Thirith was found unfit to stand trial, and Ieng Sary died during his trial in 2013. In 2014, the two remaining individuals, Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea, were found guilty of crimes against humanity (among other crimes). Both have filed appeals against the judgment.


The ECCC is a hybrid tribunal. Hybrid tribunals bring a mix of international and national law to bear upon the alleged crimes of the defendants. They are usually in-situ, within the sovereign borders of post-conflict nations and inside their national legal system. This is true of Cambodia’s tribunal, comprising “extraordinary chambers’ in Cambodia’s court system.

The first case to come before the ECCC in 2009-2010 concerned a single defendant, Kaing Guek Eav (alias “Duch”), former chief of the incarceration and torture center known as S-21. The substantive hearing of evidence in a second case began in late 2011. The two remaining defendants in this case are Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan, former “uppers brothers” of the regime, both now in their eighties and in poor health.

Hybrid tribunals are novel and relatively recent developments in international criminal law, seen to be applying the lessons of the ad hoc tribunals: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). The ad hoc tribunals, though groundbreaking and important, have also been lengthy, expensive endeavors situated at physical and popular remove from affected communities. Hybrid tribunals include the Special Courts for Sierra Leone, the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in East Timor, Kosovo’s Regulation 64 Panels, Bosnia’s War Crimes Chamber and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Hybrid tribunals are supported and directed by post-conflict national governments seeking wider legitimacy, and are funded by powerful external states with their own strategic interests and versions of the past. In my work I have tried to think through the ways in which tribunals exceed the national, memorial and conciliatory limits which they are often ascribed.



Monks and cadets line up outside the ECCC compound.


This kind of consideration of tribunal justice has been termed a “critical geopolitics of justice” (Jeffrey, 2011) approach. Such an approach enquires into the relationship between historical and present-day claims to justice and memory that are themselves internationalized or transnational. This approach is also attentive to the politics and processes of negotiation, funding, staffing and reporting on these legal hybrids, processes that have facilitated and also limited these justice forms (see Hughes, 2015; Jeffrey, 2011, Jeffrey and Jakala, 2014).

Rather than conceiving of justice as something “delivered” by the ECCC from a higher “international plane” (see Riles, 2001), or as something “happening to” Cambodia, I am interested in denaturalizing the scales of local, national and international in this case, and calling attention to the ways in which Cambodia is “happening to” the tribunal, and the Cambodian tribunal is “happening to” international criminal law.

Hybrid tribunals are routinely called upon to “localise” international law and their own (generally urban) activities through legal outreach programs. The ECCC boasts the most successful outreach program of all the hybrid tribunals. This program takes the form of public lectures, regular radio interviews, press releases, village “Memory Night” audiovisual events, and the Khmer Rouge Study Tour, which brings interested communities from smaller cities and rural areas to Phnom Penh and the ECCC for a day.

Outreach participants are a near-daily presence at the ECCC, and more than half a million people have now visited the tribunal. This level of public exposure of a hybrid tribunal is unparalleled. Academic voices have, however, critiqued ECCC outreach for its didacticism (Elander, 2014) and, when conducted by NGO intermediaries, for its indebtedness to a “transitional justice imaginary” which is both strongly normative and teleological (Hinton, 2013).

Where noted by the mass media or NGOs, this publicity is framed in terms of what observing the tribunal means to Cambodians (or, in a normative or pedagogical frame, how it might “educate” Cambodians). In my paper, I start to think about what it might mean for international criminal law and tribunal practice to play to a “full house” in Cambodia. I explore the charge of “show trial” often leveled at the tribunal, and make a case for greater consideration of the productive theatricality and performative force of this important legal process.



International observers and high school students queue to enter the Public Gallery of the Trial Chamber.



A legal outreach event organised by the ECCC Public Affairs Section brings high school students and monks to their local wat (temple) in Kampong Chhnang Province. The next day, courtesy of the ECCC, some will travel three hours to the capital, Phnom Penh, to visit the courts.



ECCC Press Officer Neth Pheaktra (rightmost) unpacks ECCC outreach booklets and posters in a temple hall in Kampong Chhnang.



ECCC buses wait to transport villagers from Kampong Chhnang on the ECCC Khmer Rouge Study Tour.



Nuth Seyma, a high school student, aboard the ECCC Study Tour bus.



ECCC Study Tour participants are taken to the national Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide Crimes (formerly a crime site known as ‘S-21′) prior to their visit to the ECCC. Village leaders, who act as tour marshals, are given a free t-shirt and cap. In the courts’ three languages (Khmer, English and French) the t-shirt reads: “I support the KR trials.”



In sight of the Cambodian and UN flags, and the tribunal’s main administration building, outreach participants wait to enter the courtroom’s public gallery.


*Acknowledgements: I thank Dim Sovannarom and Neth Pheaktra from the ECCC Public Affairs Section, and Hang Vannak of the ECCC Victim Support Section, for their kind assistance during my fieldwork in 2011 and 2015.


Elander M (2014) Education and photography at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. In: Rush P and Simic O (eds) The Arts of Transitional Justice. Springer Series in Transitional Justice 6, DOI: 10.1007/978-1 –4614-8385-4_3.

Hinton AL (2013) Transitional Justice Time: Uncle San, Aunty Yan, and Outreach at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. In: Meyersen D and Pohlman A (eds) Genocide and Mass Atrocities in Asia: Legacies and Prevention. London: Routledge, pp. 86-98.

Hughes R (2015) Ordinary theatre and extraordinary law at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33(4): 714-731.

Jeffrey A (2011) The political geographies of transitional justice. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36(3): 344-359.

Jeffrey A and Jakala M (2014) The Hybrid Legal Geographies of a War Crimes Court. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104(3): 652-667.

Riles A (2001) The view from the international plane: perspective and scale in the architecture of colonial international law. In: Blomley D, Delaney D, and Ford RT (eds) The Legal Geographies Reader. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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Rachel Hughes is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Melbourne. Her research examines questions of memory, justice, and geopolitics, with particular reference to post-1979 Cambodia.