Social justice in action: my time at the courts of Cambodia

7 June 2016
Written by Hannah Solomons (JD 2015)

Going to Cambodia and working for the UN was truly the opportunity of a lifetime. You should never underestimate where the study of law can take you. 

Courts of Cambodia

It’s 8:30am or so. I’ve just finished eating spicy noodle soup for breakfast and I am hurrying past an enormous building that projects naga or protective snakes into the surrounding air from each corner.

It’s the courtroom of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, set up by the United Nations and the Cambodian government to try former Khmer Rouge for international crimes. I pause to reflect on what I am doing here. There are 193 member countries in the UN, and instead of shooting each other we are working together, here, today. Nobody is sure how many people died under the Khmer Rouge, but let’s say a rough estimate is 25% of the population.

Today I will be reading lists with names of tens of thousands of people allegedly tortured. These kind of numbers are unknown to an Anglo-Saxon girl like me, at least not since the bubonic plague and the Inquisition. Here, today, I get to be a part of bringing justice to those responsible.

I reach the top of the stairs and give a sunny “Soursday” to the receptionist who is the real brains behind the three Chambers, and smile at my American and Swedish fellow-interns. We walk down the corridor and meet up with our Belgian, French and Albanian legal officers. Soon I’ll be presenting my idea to them all, along with the two Chamber judges, incredibly high-ranking judicial officers and experts in their field.

I gulp and consider turning around and running back down the stairs to the cafeteria. I can’t believe this is what I am doing today. This will count towards my Practical Legal Training, but so would a community legal centre in Australia. I wonder at all the forces that converged to bring me here instead. I am so glad they did.

Apart from making an important contribution to something bigger than myself, I also had the chance to grow emotionally and intellectually. I was in the Pre-Trial Chamber. Put simply, if you want to learn how an inquisitorial or civil law system is different to a common law one, that’s where you’ll learn it. Half of the things that crossed my desk simply had no equivalent in the common law at all. I came back with a legal mind about twice as wide as I had when I left.

Emotionally, well the fact is that the people are beautiful. My international superiors were people who have devoted their lives to human rights on a grand scale, but they also put it into practise on a micro level in the office in a way that made working under them one of the best working experiences I have ever had. My Khmer colleagues were inspirational. The local Khmer culture is a beautiful thing that cannot be experienced on a tourist trip. 

Going to Cambodia and working for the UN was truly the opportunity of a lifetime. At the beginning of the Juris Doctor, I never expected it would be a part of my lifetime, but you should never underestimate where the study of law can take you.

This article reflects only the personal opinion of the author and not that of the United Nations, ECCC or any of their staff.

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