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Judgment in Phnom Penh

Three decades after the Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of Cambodia’s seven million people, a court to try the most responsible surviving leaders is set to open its doors.

Under an agreement between the United Nations and Cambodia’s government, 13 foreign judges and prosecutors have now been chosen to serve alongside 17 Cambodian counterparts. This eclectic group of jurists will begin, in the first week of July, an unusual experiment in international justice. Over the next three years, the aptly named Extraordinary Chambers will seek to produce a measure of legal accountability for one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. Among those likely to be tried are two of Pol Pot’s closest and most powerful cohorts: Nuon Chea, a Khmer Rouge party leader, and Ieng Sary, the former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Given how long it has taken to get off the ground – on-again, off-again talks dragged out over nine years – this tribunal’s very existence is a cause for celebration. But the test of the trials will be whether they are – and are seen to be – fact-driven, impartial, and consistent with international standards.

For reasons of history and as a matter of law, both the Cambodian government and the international community share responsibility for making this court a success. To do so, they must address several major challenges.