Engaging with international criminal law at the Khmer Rouge tribunal

28 November 2017
True insight into international human rights law

With international criminal law and humanitarian law regularly taught as part of our law programs, a number of our students have jumped at the chance to intern at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

International criminal law

“What international criminal law brings to the world has never been more real to me than when I was thrown right into the middle of a tribunal,” says student, Francis Maxwell.

“My work was for the Office of the Co‑Investigating Judges, reviewing evidence about what happened at particular crime scenes and drafting conclusions based on this evidence.

“I assisted in the interviewing of witnesses and reviewing applications by parties to put evidence on the case files, working alongside several lawyers and about a dozen interns from Europe, Oceania and South Asia.”

He credits the practical experience as “an opportunity to talk with people who have been in this game for decades. You find yourself waiting in the queue for coffee next to some of the best minds in international criminal law, not to mention staff such as security personnel who have worked in Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.

“If you’re interested in international human rights law, it’s so important to understand what comes with the job: the experience of making a new home in another country, working and socialising alongside many nationalities, and dealing every day with some truly horrendous crimes. I found it very rewarding but it’s definitely not for everyone.”

Sydney Law School academics also have a connection with the tribunal. An amicus curiae brief by Challis Chair of International Law, Professor Ben Saul, was endorsed in a landmark decision in February 2017 by the ECCC.

The legal question was whether an attack by a government against its own armed forces could be considered an attack against a ‘civilian population’, outside an armed conflict, under the law on crimes against humanity applying between 1975 and 1979, when the Pol Pot regime ruled Cambodia.

International Co-Investigating Judge Bohlander decided that it could be, unless the armed forces were supporting an adversary in an armed conflict. Of the 11 amicus briefs received from international law experts, only the brief by Professor Saul was endorsed in the dispositive part of the decision. The ECCC accepted his argument that ‘civilian population’, outside an armed conflict, must be interpreted broadly to mean the entire population of a country, and should not be understood narrowly to exclude armed forces as defined under international humanitarian law.

The ruling is related to ECCC Cases 3 and 4, which concern crimes allegedly committed all over Cambodia, including purges, executions, labour camps, attacks on minorities and evacuees, and torture and killings at the notorious S-21 Security Centre in Phnom Penh (now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum), where only seven of 14,000 prisoners survived.