Overview of the Cambodian History, Governance and Legal Sources

By Victoria Amann-Lasnier and Nicole Fleury

Victoria Amann-Lasnier is a French lawyer currently working at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and a former legal intern of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. She holds an LL.M. from University of Essex where she also worked as a Research Fellow in transitional justice. Her research interests include international criminal law and education in transitional justice mechanisms.

Nicole Fleury is a third-year law student and a former legal intern in the Office of the International Co-Prosecutor at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. She has worked with a number of organizations on legal issues related to human trafficking, refugee and immigration law, public international law, and domestic violence, and has worked in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Lebanon, and Moldova. Previous publications include an article in the Public Contract Law Journal about combating labor trafficking in the U.S. government’s supply chain. After graduating with her J.D. in May 2019, she will serve as a Judicial Law Clerk in San Francisco through the U.S. government’s Honors program.

Jennifer Holligan is a Scottish human rights lawyer, and previously represented victims before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

Published July/August 2019

(Previously updated in December 2013)

See the Archive Version!

1. Brief Historical Overview

1.1. Period Until 1975

The exact origins of the Khmer people, the majority ethnic group inhabiting present-day Cambodia, are the subject of some debate among historians, one view being that the pre-historic inhabitants of the region migrated from China, and the other that they in fact came from India. In any event, starting around 2,000 years ago, the inhabitants of the region were subject to important religious, cultural and political influences of India. The Khmer people developed an alphabet based on the Pallava script of India, adopted the Hindu religion (today most Khmers are Theravada Buddhists), and benefited from Indian advances in science, engineering and architecture. The most famous example of the impact of these influences on the Khmer architecture is Angkor Wat, the “city-temple” located in the ancient Khmer kingdom’s capital (near today’s Siem Reap), and built during the reign of the emperor Suryavarman II in the 12th century AD.

The Angkor Wat and dozens of other temples and buildings that surround it stand as historical monuments to the great Khmer empire whose existence extended from the early 9th century to the middle of the 15th century AD. At various stages of the period, this was South East Asia’s most powerful kingdom. However, for reasons that are still not fully understood, from the 15th century the Khmers abandoned Angkor and migrated south, establishing a new capital at Oudong, 40 kilometers north of Phnom Penh. While data on the ensuing period is limited, available records indicate that Cambodia experienced a period of gradual decline. Located at the juncture of two major spheres of cultural influence – that of Theravada Buddhism to the West (predominant in Thailand) and the Vietnamese empire to the East – the Khmer kingdom eventually saw its sovereignty undermined by its dominant neighbors. Over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the country experienced civil wars, while Thai and Vietnamese kingdoms took turns in invading it. The Vietnamese instituted a program of Vietnamisation of Cambodia in the early 19th century, which ended in 1841 and was followed by a short period of relative independence under Thai influence.

In 1863, Cambodia’s King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to establish a protectorate over his kingdom, which led to Cambodia becoming a French colony. The Japanese occupied Cambodia from 1941 to 1945 and the French sought to re-assert their control after the end of World War II. Cambodia’s first written constitution was promulgated in 1947. Under this constitution, the country was governed by the King and two houses of parliament.

The colonial era ended when Cambodia declared its independence on 9 November 1953, following King Norodom Sihanouk’s negotiations with the French. In March 1955, the King abdicated in favor of his father, Norodom Suramarit, and formed the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (“People’s Socialist Community”) political party. The party won an overwhelming victory in the September 1955 national elections. In 1960, following his father’s death, Norodom Sihanouk again became the head of state (this time with the title of Prince).

A key 20th century development was the rise of the Cambodian communist movement, which had its origins in the Indochinese Communist Party, formed in Vietnam in 1930. In 1951 a Cambodian branch was formed. In September 1960 a group of young Cambodian communists secretly formed the Workers’ Party of Kampuchea, seeking to chart a course independent from their Vietnamese allies. The party was renamed the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) in 1966. Internationally, members of the CPK became known as the Khmer Rouge, a label given to them by Norodom Sihanouk. The Party’s leadership included several young people who had studied in France on Cambodian scholarships during the 1950s. Among them was Saloth Sar, who would rise to become the CPK leader and come to be known throughout the world by his revolutionary name, Pol Pot. Especially from the 1960s onward, the communists became engaged in a struggle of increasing intensity against Sihanouk’s regime. They adopted a policy of revolutionary violence designed to bring down the regime and the “oppressive classes” associated with it (sections of society that Khmer Rouge labeled as feudalists, capitalists, bourgeoisie or wealthy landowners).

In 1963, the leadership of the CPK went underground and withdrew from the capital to coordinate an insurgency from the countryside. At the end of the decade, Prince Sihanouk’s own fortunes changed. In March 1970, his Prime Minister Lon Nol convened the National Assembly, which voted to remove the Prince as the head of state. In 1972, a new state, the Khmer Republic, came into being. The regime, which enjoyed the support of the United States of America, would pursue disastrous military campaigns against Vietnamese communist forces on Cambodian soil. It also fought a bloody civil war against the CPK and its supporters.

In March 1970, Prince Sihanouk formed a government in exile, known as the Royal Government of National Union of Kampuchea, usually known by its French acronym, GRUNK. The GRUNK was a coalition between the Prince and the CPK. Its mission was to fight and bring down Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic regime. The Prince, based in Beijing, was the nominal head of the coalition. All power was exercised by in-country communist leaders including Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Son Sen, Ta Mok and Sao Phim. Together, these men conducted a five-year civil war against the Khmer Republic regime. During this period, they adopted a range of radical practices, including extra judicial executions and oppression of civilian populations under their control. Some of these violent practices were not unique to the Khmer Rouge/CPK as the Khmer Republic’s army, increasingly undisciplined, demoralized and disorganized, also killed prisoners of war and captured villagers who were suspected of collaborating with the communists.

The difference, however, lay in the communists’ systematic application of terror and oppression against civilian populations. These practices emanated from the top of the party and are recorded in many of its surviving internal circulars. From at least 1972, the CPK operated several security centers in which those suspected of opposing the communists were imprisoned, tortured and executed. At the same time the CPK started a practice of forcibly moving entire civilian populations out of captured urban areas and into rural cooperatives. In these cooperatives’, civilians were subjected to forced collectivization and hard manual labor under the supervision of CPK cadres. Those perceived as being in opposition to CPK’s rule were executed. In the same period, Prince Sihanouk was marginalized even further.

On 1 January 1975 the CPK forces began their final offensive on Phnom Penh. Over the following three months the city was placed under siege, with CPK military shelling the capital’s residential areas and preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the civilian population. The civil war ended on the morning of 17 April 1975 when the victorious communist forces entered Phnom Penh and the Khmer Republic regime surrendered.

1.2. CPK/DK period: 1975 – 1979

From April 1975 to January 1979, the CPK presided over the most tragic phase of Cambodia’s history. Immediately upon taking power, the new authorities forcibly evacuated the urban centers, and enslaved the entire population in CPK-run rural cooperatives and construction sites, effectively turning the entire country into a massive prison.

In January 1976, the CPK established Democratic Kampuchea (DK), a state in which virtually all vestiges of Cambodia’s centuries-old social order were abolished. Among other things, the authorities broke up families, prohibited religion, closed down markets, schools and universities, abolished all human rights and civil liberties, and persecuted (and eventually sought to exterminate) the Vietnamese and Cham minority groups. Cambodians were subjected to constant psychological abuse through indoctrination and monitoring by CPK cadres. The regime put in place a countrywide network of security centers in which hundreds of thousands of suspected “traitors” and perceived enemies were systematically imprisoned, tortured and executed. It is estimated that nearly two million people – or one in four Cambodians – died as a result of starvation, illness and execution over the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days that the CPK governed Cambodia. This shocking death toll was the direct result of the regime’s policies whose implementation was centrally coordinated.

Throughout this period, CPK/DK forces were engaged in an armed conflict with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), fuelled by several factors, including unprovoked CPK incursions into Vietnamese territory and an ongoing territorial dispute between the two countries. In December 1978, SRV forces mounted a massive invasion with the support of Cambodians who had fled CPK/DK rule. They entered Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979, toppling the CPK/DK regime and liberating Cambodia’s people from their tyrannical reign.

1.3. Post-DK period to present day

As the CPK leadership and its followers fled Phnom Penh, a new state, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), was established with Vietnamese support. Tragically, however, the toppling of the CPK/DK regime did not mark an end to warfare and humanitarian strife in Cambodia. Operating from camps in the country’s remote regions bordering Thailand, the CPK formed a coalition with other political movements opposed to the Phnom Penh regime, re-constituted its armed forces, and fought a civil war against the PRK (and its successor regimes, the State of Cambodia and the Kingdom of Cambodia) well into the 1990s.

Following protracted negotiations between several Cambodian political factions, the Agreements on the Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict (known as the Paris Peace Agreements) were signed on 23 October 1991. The United Nations Security Council was invited to establish the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which would oversee the implementation of the Agreements, temporarily run the country’s administration, and coordinate free elections and a restoration of law and order. One of the largest missions in United Nations’ (UN) history, UNTAC exercised supervision over various aspects of Cambodia’s government, including information, finance, foreign affairs and security. It also had the mission of disarming the warring factions. However, it failed to disarm the CPK forces, which allowed them to continue their military campaigns, and even make territorial gains as the civil war wore on.

Despite attempts by the Khmer Rouge to block them, national elections were held in 1993, leading to the formation of a coalition government led by Prince Ranariddh (son of Norodom Sihanouk) and Hun Sen as First and Second Prime Ministers respectively. Following its adoption by the new parliamentary assembly, a new constitution was promulgated on 24 September 1993, establishing the Kingdom of Cambodia, a constitutional monarchy with a democratic, multiparty political system. Prince Norodom Sihanouk was again elevated to the status of King and resumed his position as Cambodia’s head of state. He abdicated in 2004, and was replaced by his son, Norodom Sihamoni, Cambodia’s current King. On 15 October 2012 King Father Norodom Sihanouk died in hospital in Beijing, People’s Republic of China, after suffering a heart attack. On 1 February 2013, large crowds gathered near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh to pay their respects to the late King Father as his body was carried through the capital. Sihanouk was cremated on 5 February 2013 and his ashes scattered at the confluence of the four rivers in front of the Royal Palace.

2. Cambodia’s Legal and Governmental System

2.1. Overview

Cambodia’s legal system, which is primarily based on the French civil law tradition, suffered significant setbacks as a result of CPK policies during the 1975 – 1979 period. In setting up the state of Democratic Kampuchea, the CPK abolished virtually all institutions existing under Cambodia’s previous regimes, including the courts. Although DK’s constitution provided for the establishment of “people’s courts,” no judicial institutions were in fact established, and no laws were ever enacted. In place of a legal system, the CPK instituted a centralized dictatorship, which exercised absolute power over the country and governed every aspect of its citizens’ lives. As noted above, dissidents were imprisoned and executed if the regime’s security centers. As intellectuals were among those perceived by the regime as a threat, and therefore targeted for elimination, Cambodia lost the majority of its legal professionals in this period. Re-established following the toppling of the DK regime, the country’s legal institutions are still in a process of transition.

An important development to provide accountability for atrocities committed during the DK regime was the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in early 2006. This internationalized criminal tribunal was created in accordance with an agreement between the United Nations and the Royal Government of Cambodia to bring to trial senior leaders of DK and those most responsible for the crimes that took place during the period. More information on the ECCC is provided further below.

2.2. Constitutional and Administrative Set-Up

Under the 1993 constitution, Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with the King as its head of state. The King represents a symbol of unity and eternity of the nation. The Head of Government is an elected Prime Minister. Legislative power is vested in a bicameral parliament, while the judicial power is exercised by a constitutionally independent judiciary.

In addition to providing for a separation of executive, judicial and legislative powers, the constitution guarantees respect for citizens’ fundamental rights contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. Numerous of these rights are expressly set out in the constitution, and they include the right to life, the right to freedom of expression and association, the right to peaceful protest, and the protection of legal ownership. The constitution obligates the state to respect the rights of children and prohibits all forms of discrimination against women. It also sets out due process protections such as the presumption of innocence and equality before the law. Capital punishment is prohibited.

Cambodia’s Constitutional Council is responsible for providing interpretations of the Constitution and deciding on disputes relating to the election of members of the National Assembly and the Senate. A request for a review of the constitutionality of any law may be made by, among others, the King, the Prime Minister, one quarter of the Senators or one tenth of the members of the National Assembly.

The constitution preserves the validity of previously enacted legislation to the extent that the latter is not inconsistent with the constitution itself. Cambodia’s legal system therefore comprises legislation enacted prior to the current constitution, as well as more recent laws, which have been adopted since 1993 to support the emerging market-based economy. A new Code of Criminal Procedure was enacted in 2007, and a new Penal Code entered into force in December 2010. In addition, a new Code of Civil Procedure was enacted in 2006,[1] and a new Civil Code came into force in December 2011.

The territory of Cambodia comprises 25 provinces (rural) and municipalities (urban) with a total of 185 districts, 1646 communes[2] and 13,694 villages. The 25 provincial and municipal administrations are appointed by the central government and are a part of the Ministry of Interior. The 2001 Law on Commune/Sangkat Administrative Management provides for elections of commune level councils. The elections for members of commune councils take place every 5 years. The most recent commune elections took place on 4 June 2017. Out of a total 11,572[3] commune council seats, the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) won a total of 6,503 (50,7%), and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 5,007 (43,8%), with only a few seats left for the remaining parties. The results show a significant breakthrough for the CNRP, departing from their modest victory in 2012 when the Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party ran separately, winning about 30% of the votes altogether.

In 2012, the commune elections were accompanied by violence and allegations of intimidation of opposition candidates and supporters. In its annual report, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) noted: “In some communes/sangkats an atmosphere of intimidation and fear created a situation where voters felt constraint in their freedom to choose among political contesters. This was not conducive for free and fair elections.” COMFREL also found weaknesses in the voter registration system, including undue political influence and failures to ensure accurate voter verification procedures. The report concluded that the elections were “limited free.”

The 2017 commune elections were reported to have taken place in relative peace, with the National Election Committee recording a voter turnout of over 85 per cent. In the lead-up to the commune elections, it was widely reported that government ministers made public statements using violent rhetoric, including threats of military deployment to quell any protests or unrest following the announcement of the results[4]. Assessing the whole electoral process, COMFREL noted a lack of transparency, close links between the political spheres and high-ranking military personnel, and instances of intimidation of civil society by security services. Overall, the organization stated that “[t]hese irregularities resulted in signficant restrictions on the enjoyment of voting and participation rights of the Cambodian people and demonstrate elections in Cambodia are not of sufficient quality to be considered fully fair.”[5]

2.3. Executive Branch

Cambodia’s executive government is formed by the party that acquires the greatest number of seats in the National Assembly at national elections. The Prime Minister, who is a member of the Assembly, is appointed by the King on the recommendation of the President and Vice Presidents of the National Assembly. Upon entry into office, the Prime Minister appoints a Council of Ministers. The current Prime Minister is CPP’s Hun Sen, who was first elected in 1985, making him one of the world’s longest serving prime ministers.

2.4. Legislative Branch

The National Assembly: The National Assembly consists of 125 members who serve five-year terms upon election. The President and two Vice Presidents of the Assembly are elected by the members. The most recent elections were held on 28 July 2013 and 29 July 2018.

In 2013, according to official results, the ruling CPP won 68 seats (or 48% of the votes), while the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 55 seats (or 44% of the vote). The CNRP is a coalition between the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, founded in 2012. The 2013 election results represented a significant decline for the CPP, which lost 22 seats from the previous election. The 2013 election results were challenged by CNRP and their supporters, whose concerns have been echoed by several governments and prominent organizations such as the US, the EU and the Human Rights Watch. The elections were accompanied by widespread allegations of vote rigging, including individuals casting several votes due to the absence of an official population count. Indelible ink, which was used to mark the index finger of voters who have already cast their vote, proved to be easy to remove. The elections were followed by a number of peaceful protests in Phnom Penh in September and October 2013. While the opposition and a number of observers called for an independent inquiry, Cambodia’s National Election Commission denied irregularities in the elections. On 23 September 2013, King Norodom Sihamoni presided over an opening session of the National Assembly despite calls for a delay.

In the most recent elections, held on 29 July 2018, the ruling CPP won all 125 seats by receiving 77% of valid votes.[6] The government praised itself for the peaceful and upbeat atmosphere of the polling day.[7] However, it has been widely argued that such an environment was only achieved through a government crackdown on the opposition and the effective dismantlement of the democratic space. The elections took place following the arrest of the leader of CNRP, and a dissolution of CNRP itself (see section 3 for more discussion).

The Senate: The Senate is the upper house of the Cambodian legislature and has 62 members. Two of these are appointed by the King, two are elected by the lower house of Parliament, and the remaining fifty-eight are elected through non-universal elections, by commune councillors throughout the country and members of the National Assembly. Members of the Senate serve six-year terms. In 2012, the CPP won 46 out of the 57 seats while the Sam Rainsy Party obtained 11 seats. In the 2018 elections, the CPP won all the 58 seats at stake in a landslide victory as described above.[8]

2.5.Judicial Branch

Following the toppling of the DK in 1979, people’s revolutionary courts were established on an ad hoc basis by the PRK regime. Establishment of a more institutionalized system did not take place until 1982 when a law providing for the organization of courts and the Office of the Public Prosecutor was promulgated. Under this law, a network of courts was extended to each province and municipality and the People’s Supreme Court was created as the highest court of the land. The arrival of UNTAC in 1992 brought further important changes to the judicial system in Cambodia, including the creation of an Appeal Court. This resulted in a three-tiered court system, consisting of courts of first instance (municipal, provincial or military courts), the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court. As noted above, the 1993 constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary from the executive and the legislature.

The territorial jurisdiction of provincial and municipal courts covers their respective provinces and municipalities, while the military court has jurisdiction over the entire country. Judgments of these courts of first instance can be appealed on questions of fact and law to the Appeal Court. The Supreme Court generally adjudicates only questions of law on appeal from the Appeal Court.

The 1993 constitution established the Supreme Council of Magistracy. Chaired by the King, the Council is responsible for the appointment of judges and prosecutors at all levels, and for the adjudication of disciplinary actions against them. When dealing with disciplinary matters, the Council convenes under the chairmanship of the President of the Supreme Court (or, if the action is against a prosecutor, under the chairmanship of the General Prosecutor).

Although the Constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary, concerns have been raised as to lingering systemic weaknesses within the judicial branch of government. These weaknesses, and their origins in the decades of armed conflict, were noted in a 28 January 2011 decision of the ECCC Trial Chamber dealing with a request for the disqualification of the Chamber’s presiding judge. Additionally, a UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia commented in a 17 June 2010 statement that: “a combination of a lack of adequate resources, organizational and institutional shortcomings, a lack of full awareness of the relevant human rights standards, and external interference, financial or otherwise, in the work of the judiciary, has resulted in an institution that does not command the confidence of people from many walks of life.”[9]

The state of Cambodia’s legal system has not improved: numerous criminal and civil cases have been filed against political activists and members of civil society, and the government has enacted legislation eroding the independence of the judiciary. In 2014, the National Assembly and the Senate passed three laws pertaining to the organization of courts, the status of judges and prosecutors, and the Supreme Council of the Magistracy. The laws were ushered through without public comment and only limited opportunity for debate, and they instituted the potential for serious interference from the executive towards the judiciary by reforming the process of appointment and removal of judges and prosecutors, as well as by placing budgetary matters of the judiciary in the government’s hands.[10] The 2014 United Nations Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia described these laws as “detrimental to the principle of the separation of powers” by allowing the “the Ministry of Justice undue influence over the court system and the judiciary.”[11] More recently, the President of the Supreme Court responsible for enacting the dissolution of the CNRP is a long-standing member of the CPP with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen,[12] raising serious concerns over the legitimacy and independence of the judiciary.

The weaknesses in Cambodia’s legal system are visible through the numerous recent prosecutions of civil society actors and political opponents. In an August 2013 report, the UN Special Rapporteur stated, “judges continue to use the provisions of the Criminal Code against human rights defenders and all those who express opinions which are not favorable to the Government.” A prominent case was the 2012 prosecution and conviction of Mam Sonando, a radio station host and a human rights activist. In October 2012 Mr. Sonando was found guilty of a number of offences, including instigating an insurrectionary movement and inciting people to take arms against state authority. The conviction was widely criticized as lacking any basis in evidence and led to protests by numerous human rights bodies. On 14 March 2013 the Court of Appeal found that there was no evidence to support many of Mr. Sonando’s convictions. The Court nevertheless found Mr. Sonando guilty of charges relating to unrests in the province of Kratie and imposed a suspended sentence of five-year imprisonment. While Mr. Sonando was released from custody, his conviction has been criticized by, among others, the organization Amnesty International, who stated that the conviction appears to be baseless.

Additionally, Dr Kem Ley, founder of a local grassroots organization and well-known political commentator and vocal government critic, was shot dead at a petrol station in Phnom Penh in July 2016 two days after he accused Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family of rampant corruption.[13] The government prosecuted a man named Oeuth Ang for Mr. Ley’s murder, presenting a case narrative that included premeditated murder for failing to repay a debt.[14] Critics maintain that the government’s evidence was fabricated and contradictory and that the half-day trial was a farce.[15] Despite several human rights advocates calling for a free and independent investigation into his murder,[16] the government has yet to follow through.[17] Moreover, those who have publicly questioned the government’s narrative about the circumstances of Mr. Ley’s death have been confronted with criminal charges, including criminal defamation and incitement.[18]

In a more recent case on 29 June 2017, five staff members from ADHOC, a human rights NGO, were released under judicial supervision after spending 427 days in pre-trial detention on charges of witness bribery.[19] While this lengthy time on remand infringed their right to trial within a reasonable time, the UN Special Rapporteur found it “to be nothing more than a politically-motivated persecution of civil society” in her annual statement to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2018. Consequently, she encouraged the Cambodian government to “release all detainees who have been charged and imprisoned without sufficient substantiated evidence and who were arrested due to their political affiliations, human rights work or the expression of their opinions” and to increase efforts to minimize pre-trial detention and provide accurate records of the legal decisions of all courts.[20]

In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur noted serious concerns regarding the disparate evidentiary standards applied in criminal cases.[21] In absence of clear guidelines, of accountability and in lack of transparency as there is no publication of judicial decisions, judges are more subject to bribery and the country even more exposed to endemic corruption.

The establishment in 2006 of an internationalized hybrid tribunal to prosecute those most responsible for crimes committed during the CPK/DK regime (see below under ECCC –The Khmer Rouge Tribunal) presented a significant opportunity to build the capacity within the domestic system.

3. Recent Political/Electoral Developments

Kem Sokha, Cambodia’s opposition leader and President of the CNRP, was arrested on the 3rd of September 2017 and charged with treason and conspiracy to oust the CPP. His arrest was followed by the dissolution of the CNRP opposition party by the Supreme Court on 16 November 2017. The ruling was made in response to a government complaint. Under the court’s ruling, all of the CNRP’s 118 elected officials were banned from politics for five years, in addition to losing their current positions (including 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly).[22] Their seats were subsequently redistributed to other parties, including eleven to the CPP.

After the dissolution, none of the CPP’s main adversaries in 2018 reached more than 6% of the vote, paving the way for the CPP to win the national election in a landslide victory. Although the participation rate reached 83%, concerns were raised over intimidation of those who planned not to vote. Allegations included the use of monetary incitements and threats against those who could not show ink on their finger as proof of voting.[23] Many individuals, including Sam Rainsy, faced legal charges for calling for a boycott. The Prime Minister Hun Sen characterized any call for boycott as illegal and at risk of undermining public order and causing confusion.[24] On the polling day itself, international observers mostly refrained from engaging in the observation of the electoral process, stating that there could be no genuine competition in the prevailing situation which progressively instituted a de facto one-party state. The UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia supported this claim by noting that “grave developments” had been taking place in the country over the recent years.[25]

In the aftermath of the 2018 election at least 20 political activists and journalists were released.[26] Kem Sokha was released on bail on 10 September 2018, pending trial.[27] His yearlong pre-trial detention on treason charges was found arbitrary by a UN Working Group in April 2018.[28] To date there have been no further developments regarding his trial.

In the lead-up to 2018 national elections, there were alarming reports of an escalation of repression against civil society organizations, human rights defenders, opposition political parties and media outlets in Cambodia. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia noted in September 2017 that “the deterioration of the democratic space and freedom of expression in Cambodia is a primary concern, with many NGOs and human rights defenders subject to threats, harassment, arrest, and/or extensive pre-trial detention.”

Since August 2017, licenses of 19 independent radios were removed while the Cambodia Daily – one of the Kingdom’s longest running independent English newspapers – ceased to operate after receiving a 6.3 million US dollar tax bill payable within a fortnight. The remaining independent newspaper, the Phnom Penh Post, was sold in May 2018 to a Malaysian investor, whose firm is known to conduct public relations for the Prime Minister.[29] The Editor in Chief as well as a dozen members of the personnel were fired or resigned over publication disputes in the days following the takeover.[30] On 12 September 2017, the US-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA)[31] was forced to suspend operations and radio stations that broadcast RFA and Voice of America content were also taken off air. The Association of Southeast Asian National Parliamentarians for Human Rights criticised what it called “a clear intent by the ruling party to curb freedom of expression ahead of the national elections.”[32] The actions against media outlets coincided with the shuttering of the USAID funded NGO National Democratic Institute on 23 August for failing to register with the Foreign Ministry and Tax Department. With this general deterioration of fundamental rights, several human rights defenders have fled the country out of fear of reprisals.[33]

The international community, including the European Union,[34] the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,[35] ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights,[36] Forum Asia,[37] and International Federation for Human Rights[38] as well as a growing number of state governments including Sweden[39] and the U.S.,[40] all expressed their strong concern about the rapid decline of democracy and respect for human rights in Cambodia.

4. ASEAN and International Relations

Cambodia is a member of the G77, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and a number of UN bodies, including the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural Organization. Cambodia acceded to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1995 and participated for the first time in the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1995. Cambodia joined ASEAN on 30 April 1999. In November 2012, the country hosted ASEAN’s 21st conference under the theme of “ASEAN: One Community, One Destiny.” On October 2004, Cambodia became the 148th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

5. ECCC — The Khmer Rouge Tribunal

5.1. Establishment of the ECCC

On 21 June 1997, the Cambodian government requested the UN to assist in establishing a tribunal to prosecute those responsible for crimes committed during the DK period. In 2001, the National Assembly passed a law (“ECCC Law”) that provided for the establishment of the ECCC. An Agreement between the Cambodian Government and the UN (“the Agreement”) was signed in June 2003. The Agreement regulates the cooperation between the UN and the Royal Government of Cambodia, and deals with, among other matters, the ECCC’s jurisdiction, composition of its chambers, decision-making and applicable penalties. In October 2004, amendments to the ECCC Law were enacted and approved by the Constitutional Council, and the Agreement was ratified. This led to the formal establishment of the ECCC in early 2006.

5.2. Overview of the ECCC

The ECCC is one of a handful of hybrid, internationalized criminal tribunals established to prosecute individuals accused of mass atrocities. While it is technically a part of the Cambodian court system, the ECCC has its own separate jurisdiction, applies international law, and is constituted by chambers comprising national and international judges. Judgments rendered by the ECCC are final and not subject to review by Cambodia’s Appeal or Supreme Courts. The Co-Prosecutors’ Office is jointly led by an international prosecutor and a national prosecutor.

The Court applies a combination of domestic criminal procedure and rules established within the ambit of international criminal law. The law establishing the Court provides that, if existing domestic procedures do not deal with a particular matter, or if there is a question regarding the consistency of domestic procedures with international standards, guidance can be sought in rules established at the international level. To facilitate this process, the Court’s Plenary has adopted Internal Rules which are the primary document governing the procedures before the ECCC.

The ECCC has jurisdiction over specific criminal offences set out in the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code (murder, torture and religious persecution), as well as international crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The ECCC is the first internationalized criminal court that uses the civil law criminal procedure where investigations are carried out by a judicial office called the Office of the Co-Investigating Judges (OCIJ). This procedure also provides for the participation of victims as civil parties.

As noted above, the ECCC’s personal jurisdiction extends to the senior leaders of Democratic Kampuchea and those most responsible for serious violations of Cambodian penal law, international law and custom during the DK period. Upon conviction, the accused can be sentenced to imprisonment terms ranging from five years to life imprisonment.

5.3. Cases before the ECCC

The first proceedings before the Court were set in motion on 18 July 2007 when the Co-Prosecutors filed an Introductory Submission (IS) requesting a judicial investigation into numerous alleged crimes, including the forced evacuations of urban centers, and the enslavement, imprisonment, torture and killings of civilians within security centers and mass forced labor sites. The IS identified five suspects: Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, and Kaing Guek Eav (also known as “Duch”). Following the commencement of the judicial investigation, the Co-Investigating Judges (CIJs) ordered the arrests of the five suspects, and then separated the proceedings against Duch. This resulted in a separate investigation into Duch’s responsibility for the crimes that took place at S-21, the CPK/DK’s central and most important security centre, in which more than 14,000 men, women and children were imprisoned and executed. These proceedings became known as Case 001. The investigations against the other four suspects were conducted as part of Case 002.

The second proceedings before the court were set in motion on 18 August 2009 when the Pre-Trial Chamber on 18 August 2009, issued their public, redacted version of their considerations relating to proceedings arising out of a disagreement between the National and International Co-Prosecutor as to whether to go forward with two additional introductory submissions. As no super majority verdict on the disagreement could be reached by the Pre-Trial Chamber, that is 4 out of 5 judges, pursuant to the ECCC Statute Article 20 (new), the CIJs were obligated to proceed with a confidential judicial investigation in both cases. These proceedings became known as Case 003 and 004. Case 003 identified two suspects: Meas Muth and Sou Met and Case 004 identified three suspects: Im Chaem, Ao An and Yim Tith. During the investigation, the CIJs separated the proceedings against each of three suspect in Case 004. Consequently, the investigation relating to Im Chaem became known as Case 004-01, Ao An as Case 004-02 and Yim Tith as Case 004-03.

5.4. Case 001

The former chief of S-21, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, was arrested by the Cambodian authorities in 1999 and kept in military detention without trial until his transfer to the ECCC in 2007. His trial at the ECCC started in February 2009, and closing statements were delivered in November 2009. During the trial, the court heard extensive testimony from Duch, as well as 33 witnesses and 22 civil parties at public hearings, which were attended by approximately 28,000 visitors. On 26 July 2010, the Trial Chamber rendered its judgment, finding Duch guilty of persecution as a crime against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. The Chamber imposed a sentence of 30 years of imprisonment (after a five-year reduction as a remedy for Duch’s unlawful detention by the Cambodian authorities).

Both Duch and the Co-Prosecutors appealed the Trial Chamber’s judgment before the ECCC Supreme Court Chamber. Duch’s defense team argued that Duch’s case did not fall within the Court’s jurisdiction, and that the accused should therefore be released. The prosecutors argued, among other things, that the Trial Chamber committed an error by subsuming individual crimes (including murder and torture) under persecution as a crime against humanity, and by failing to sentence Duch to 40 years imprisonment as requested by the prosecution at the end of the trial.

The ECCC Supreme Court Chamber (SCC) rendered its judgment on 3 February 2012. It rejected the accused’s submissions regarding a lack of jurisdiction. It upheld, in part, the Co-Prosecutors’ appeal, finding that the Trial Chamber did commit an error by subsuming several specific crimes against humanity within the crime of persecution. The SCC entered additional convictions for the crimes against humanity of extermination (encompassing murder), enslavement, imprisonment, torture and other inhumane acts. By a 5-2 majority, the SCC imposed a sentence of life imprisonment, finding that Duch was not entitled to a reduction in sentence because the violations of his rights were not attributable to the ECCC.

5.5. Case 002

On 15 September 2010, the Co-Investigating Judges indicted Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and violations of the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code. These charges related to 27 separate mass crime sites or criminal events.

The four accused in Case 002 were the surviving senior members of the CPK and the DK government. Among the positions they held, Nuon Chea was the Deputy Secretary of the CPK, Ieng Sary Minister for Foreign Affairs, Khieu Samphan the Chairman of the State Presidium, and Ieng Thirith the Minister for Social Affairs. The proceedings against Ieng Thirith and Ieng Sary were suspended/terminated in 2012 and 2013 respectively (see further below).

The accused filed appeals against the indictment, which were largely rejected by the ECCC Pre-Trial Chamber, and the case was forwarded to the Trial Chamber on 14 January 2011.

In September 2011 the Trial Chamber decided to sever Case 002 into a series of trials in order to ensure that judgments could be rendered on at least a portion of the charges. The decision was driven by the Accused’s advanced age and the complexity of the case.

In the first case, known as 002/01, the Trial Chamber proceeded to examine the following issues and charges:

  • History of the CPK and DK, the authority and communications structures of the regime, and the roles and positions of the Accused
  • The regime’s policies
  • The responsibility of the Accused for crimes committed in:
    • The forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975
    • Mass executions of Khmer Republic soldiers, officers and officials at a site in Cambodia’s Pursat Province, known as Tuol Po Chrey; and
    • A second forced transfer of up to half a million of people in late 1975 and 1976.

The Chamber refused the Co-Prosecutors’ requests for a limited expansion of the first trial to make the charges more representative of the case as a whole. The Supreme Court Chamber overturned this decision on 8 February 2013. Nevertheless, on 26 April 2013 the Trial Chamber exercised its discretion to sever the case in the same manner as in the original severance. On 23 July 2013, on a further appeal by the Co-Prosecutors, the Supreme Court Chamber found that the Trial Chamber erred in law and in the exercise of its discretion. However, given the advanced stage of the trial, the SCC elected not to order an expansion of the case.

Even within the reduced scope, the first trial has dealt with criminal events affecting millions of victims. The April 1975 forced evacuation of Phnom Penh alone affected more than two million people, and led to the deaths of thousands from starvation, disease and execution.

The trial in Case 002/01 commenced in November 2011 and concluded with closing submissions by the parties on 31 October 2013. During this trial, the Chamber sat for a total of 222 hearing days. It heard the testimony of 92 individuals (including experts, witnesses and civil parties). The trial received enormous public interest, with more than 103,000 persons attending the hearings. In their closing submissions, the Co-Prosecutors requested a sentence of life imprisonment, arguing that the Accused are responsible for all of the crimes with which they are charged, as members of a joint criminal enterprise. The Accused argued that they were not responsible for any of the crimes and asked to be acquitted of all charges.

Proceedings against Ieng Thirith were first suspended in November 2011 due to a finding that she was unfit to stand trial. Having considered extensive expert evidence, the Trial Chamber found that Ieng Thirith suffers from dementia, most likely caused by Alzheimer’s disease. The Chamber ordered Ieng Thirith released. Following an appeal by the Co-Prosecutors, the Supreme Court Chamber ordered that Ieng Thirith undergo a course of treatment as recommended by one of the medical experts. The purpose of the treatment was to exhaust all reasonable avenues to enable Ieng Thirith’s participation in the trial. Following this further treatment, Ieng Thirith’s cognitive capacities did not improve and she was released from detention in September 2012 and died in August 2015.

Proceedings against Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith’s husband, were terminated following his death on 14 March 2013.

The Trial Chamber handed down its judgment on 7 August 2014, finding Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan guilty of a number of crimes through their participation in a joint criminal enterprise. These included crimes against humanity of murder, political persecution, and other inhumane acts for the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975; murder and extermination committed at Tuol Po Chrey; and political persecution and other inhumane acts for the second forced transfer of the population which commenced in late 1975. The Chamber also found Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan guilty of having planned, instigated, and aided and abetted the crimes of extermination, other inhumane acts, and political persecution. Both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Trial Chamber endorsed 11 reparation projects that were designed to address the immense suffering caused by the crimes addressed in the Case 002/01 trial.

The Supreme Court Chamber upheld the majority of the convictions against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan on 23 November 2016. However, the Supreme Court reversed the convictions for planning, instigation, and aiding and abetting the crime against humanity of extermination in the evacuation of Phnom Penh and the second forced transfer of the population. It also reversed the finding of persecution on political grounds for the second forced transfer. Finally, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction for crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, and persecution on political grounds at Tuol Po Chrey, finding that the evidence was inadequate to find a policy to kill all Khmer Republic soldiers, officers and officials. Despite these reversals, the Supreme Court upheld the sentence of life imprisonment for Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan due to the nature of the crimes and the significant roles of the accused.

In the second case, known as 002/02, the Trial Chamber examined the responsibility of the Accused for crimes committed in:

  • The establishment and operation of worksites and cooperatives
  • The establishment and operation of security centers and execution sites
  • The targeting of several groups, including the Cham, the Vietnamese, Buddhists, and former Khmer Republic officials; and
  • The regulation of marriage.

The trial in Case 002/02 commenced in October 2014 and concluded with closing arguments in June 2017. During the trial, the Chamber sat for 274 hearing days and heard testimony from 185 individuals (including experts, witnesses, and civil parties). It considered a case file totaling approximately 10,000 evidentiary documents. Similar to Case 002/01, this case received widespread public attention: nearly 83,000 visitors attended the hearings.

On 16 November 2018, the Trial Chamber found that Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan committed various crimes in their participation in a joint criminal enterprise. This included crimes against humanity at worksites and cooperatives, as well as security centers and execution sites across DK; the crime against humanity of persecution on political grounds against Buddhists; genocide against the Cham and the Vietnamese; crimes against humanity of persecution on political grounds and murder against former Khmer Rouge officials; and the crime against humanity of other inhumane acts of forced marriage and rape related to the regulation of marriage.

The Trial Chamber endorsed 13 reparation projects that were designed to address the immense suffering caused by the crimes addressed in the Case 002/02 trial.

5.6. Case 003

The judicial investigation against Meas Muth, the head of the DK Navy and Sou Met, the head of the DK Airforce commenced on 7 September 2009 with the filing of the International Co-Prosecutor’s (ICP) Introductory Submission requesting they be investigated for the crimes of genocide against the Vietnamese, crimes against humanity, war crimes and homicide under the 1956 Penal Code. Nine years later, on 10 January 2017, the investigation concluded. Over 7,000 evidentiary documents were placed on the case file, including over 1,000 records of witness interviews and 650 civil party applications. Six years into the investigation, Meas Muth was charged in absentia on 3 March 2015 and then personally on 14 December 2015 with the same core offenses alleged initially in 2009. Sou Met died on 14 June 2013and the charges against him were terminated.

On the 14 November 2017 the two Co-Prosecutors filed separate final submissions on the question of whether Meas Muth should be indicted and sent for trial. The ICP argued that Meas Muth should be tried on all the crimes charged by the ICJ, in addition to further crimes investigated but not charged. The Submission pointed out that Meas Muth holds responsibility for crimes committed against thousands of Cambodian civilians, military personnel and foreigners, notably of Vietnamese and Thai nationality. It alleged that, from 1977, he oversaw purges of cadre in his ranks and ordered torture, executions and transfers to S-21 of so-called “enemies” suspected of disloyalty to the regime. Disagreeing, the National Co-Prosecutor (NCP) argued that Meas Muth did not fall within the personal jurisdiction of the court and that further prosecutions of individuals for Khmer Rouge crimes would cause domestic political disruption. In response, on 12 April 2018, the defense filed their Final Submission requesting that the case be dismissed. In December 2018, the National and the International Co-Investigating Judges published two separate Closing Orders. While the Cambodian Judge deemed that level of participation by Meas Muth did not fall within the ECCC’s personal jurisdiction, the international Judge found that Meas Muth was within the Court;s jurisdiction and that there was sufficient evidence to proceed with an indictment of a number of crimes such as war crimes and genocide of the Vietnamese.

5.7. Case 004

Yim Tith, who held several positions in the CPK hierarchy spanning several regions of Democratic Kampuchea, was charged by the OCIJ on 9 December 2015. The charges included genocide of the Khmer Krom and crimes against humanity, including murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, and persecution against various groups (including the Khmer Krom and Vietnamese). He was also charged with other inhumane acts including forced marriage, as well as grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 committed as part of an international armed conflict between Democratic Kampuchea and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, namely wilful killing and the unlawful deportation or transfer of civilians. Finally, Yim Tith was charged with violations of the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code, namely premeditated homicide. The judicial investigation against Yim Tith began on 20 November 2008 with an Introductory Submission and concluded on September 2017.

The National Co-Prosecutor and the International Co-Prosecutor filed separate final submissions on 31 May and 4 June, respectively. The International Co-Prosecutor argued that Yim Tith should be indicted and sent to trial because he was a senior leader of the CPK and was among those “most responsible” for crimes committed during the regime. He emphasised that Yim Tith held several positions in the CPK hierarchy in both the northwest and southwest zones and argued that the evidence showed a direct link between Yim Tith and the perpetration of crimes committed at a number of worksites and security centres. Disagreeing, the National Co-Prosecutor argued that Yim Tith should not be indicted because he does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Court, as he is neither a senior leader nor one of those “most responsible” for the crimes.

Yim Tith’s defense team is as of summer 2019 preparing a response to the Co-Prosecutors’ final submissions. The CIJs will then review the evidence and the respective parties’ submissions to determine whether Yim Tith should be indicted and sent to trial.

5.8. Case 004/01

Proceedings against Im Chaem, who held leadership positions at the district and sector levels of the CPK, began on 20 November 2008 when the International Co-Prosecutor filed an Introductory Submission requesting that the OCIJ investigate allegations against her. The seven-year investigation concluded on 18 December 2015. On 3 March 2015, the International CIJ charged Im Chaem in absentia with homicide, as a violation of the 1956 Cambodian Penal Code, as well as the crimes against humanity of murder, extermination, enslavement, imprisonment, persecution on political grounds, and other inhumane acts allegedly committed at various security centres and worksites. The National Co-Investigating Judge elected not to charge Im Chaem, asserting that she does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Court.

On 27 October 2016, the Co-Prosecutors submitted separate final submissions that reached opposite conclusions about whether Im Chaem should be indicted and sent to trial. The International Co-Prosecutor argued that Im Chaem falls within the jurisdiction of the Court because she is among those “most responsible” for crimes committed during the regime. In contrast, the National Co-Prosecutor argued that based on the evidence, Im Chaem did not fall within the jurisdiction of the Court as either a senior leader of the CPK or among those “most responsible.” In response, the Defence team submitted its final submission arguing that the accused did not fall within the Court’s jurisdiction. After considering the final submissions, the OCIJ published a brief joint closing order on 22 Feb 2017 that dismissed the case for lack of personal jurisdiction. This was followed five months later by a closing order with complete reasons for the dismissal.

The International Co-Prosecutor seized the Pre-Trial Chamber with an appeal against the OCIJ Dismissal Order on its merits and on procedural grounds. Following two days of hearings held in closed session in December 2017, the Pre-Trial Chamber deliberated and issued its Considerations on 29 June 2018. The judges issued a decision that was partially unanimous and partially split. They were unanimous regarding procedural issues, including finding that the national Cambodian courts are not excluded from prosecuting the accused, and that the OCIJ erred in redacting all of the reasons for the dismissal in the publicly available version. The PTC directed that the decision, and the submissions on which the dismissal were based, should be made available to the public. Regarding the merits of the appeal, the PTC judges were split in their conclusions. The two International PTC Judges concluded that the OCIJ erred in finding that Im Chaem does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Court, whereas the three National PTC Judges found that the accused does not fall within its jurisdiction. Four of five PTC judges are required to overturn an OCIJ decision. Here, only two judges reached the conclusion that the decision should be overturned and thus the OCIJ’s decision has been upheld. As a result, the proceedings against Im Chaem at the ECCC have concluded.

5.9. Case 004/02

Ao An, the alleged Central Zone Deputy Secretary of the DK regime was under investigation for almost 9 years from 20 November 2008 to 29 March 2017. The case focuses on six security centers, two execution sites and one worksite and includes 10,100 documents, 1,600 records of witness interviews and 2,000 civil party applications. The charges brought against Ao An include premeditated homicide under Cambodian law, crimes against humanity of extermination, enslavement, persecution, torture, imprisonment and other inhumane acts, and genocide of the Cham.

On 3 May 2017, the defense filed a request to annul the entire investigation by seizing the ICIJ and the Pre-Trial Chamber. The request and appeal were dismissed and the CIJs invited the Co-Prosecutors to file their final submission. In his submission, the ICP argued that the position held by Ao An enabled him to make a significant contribution to crimes committed in areas under his authority. The internal purge of purported inside enemies culminated in the final years of the regime, causing thousands of deaths in extrajudicial killings for which Ao An is alleged to bear responsibility. The NCP argued that the Ao An was neither a “senior leader,” nor “most responsible” and recommended the dismissal of the case for lack of personal jurisdiction. On 24 October 2017, the defense filed their response. On 16 August 2018, the international and the national judges issued two separate closing orders calling respectively for indictment and for dismissal. Given such situation was not foreseen by the Statute, what happens next lies in the hands of the Trial Chamber.

6. Sources of Law

As in other countries with a continental legal system, legislation is the primary source of law in Cambodia. Other sources of law include the Constitution, custom, government decrees and regulations adopted under UNTAC, and human rights conventions ratified by Cambodia.

Under the 1993 constitution, the Cambodian government is required to recognize and respect the human rights set out in the covenants dealing with human rights, women’s rights and children’s rights. In 2007, the Constitutional Council issued a ruling stating that the law applicable before domestic courts is to include the constitution as the supreme law, and the international human rights treaties recognized by Cambodia.

Domestic Custom: Custom may influence the application of the law in Cambodia. One example of this is Article 23 of the Law on Contract, which stipulates that, if the meaning of a contractual provision is not clear, it shall be interpreted according to common practices or customs of the place where the contract was made. Furthermore, the Khmer tradition of conciliation beginning at the village level remains a part of the dispute resolution process. Conflicts are often dealt with at village level first before being heard by a court of first instance.

UNTAC Regulations: During the transitional period described under “Post-DK period to present day” above, a Supreme National Council (SNC) was established under the Peace Paris Agreements. Under the terms of the Agreements, the “SNC represent[ed] the unique legitimate body and source of authority in which, throughout the transitional period, the sovereignty, independence and unity of Cambodia are enshrined.” The SNC represented Cambodia at the United Nations and delegated its powers to UNTAC during the transitional period until the election of a new government. During this period, laws such as the 1992 Electoral Law were drafted by UNTAC and adopted by the SNC. Laws adopted during this period remain in power until their replacement by laws enacted by Cambodia’s parliament.

6.1. International Treaties

Cambodia is a party to numerous international treaties and conventions, including the following treaties relevant to protection of human rights:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
  • Genocide Convention 1948
  • ICC Rome Statute 1998
  • Geneva Conventions 1949
  • Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance

International treaties are ratified by the King following a vote of approval by the National Assembly.

7. Legal Resources

Given that Cambodia is still a country in transition, electronic and hard copy legal resources are relatively limited. Nevertheless, a number of useful texts are available, legislation in a number of areas can be found online, and several websites provide useful information on the set-up and activities of Government ministries.

7.1. Legislation

Vernacular Sources: The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights publishes a compilation of laws and other legal instruments relevant to the administration of justice and institutional development in Cambodia. The compilation also contains the text of the main international human rights treaties to which Cambodia is a party, as well as the ILO conventions, extradition treaties, and other international instruments. The compilation is available on the OCHR – Cambodia website.

Open Development Cambodia is an online hub, which compiles a wide range of data relevant to business, legal, environmental, international and social issues in Cambodia.

An official gazette is published by the General Department of Official Gazette; however, this is not available online.

English language sources: Numerous laws are available online in the English language, including Land Law, Law on Nationality, Law on the Investment of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Law on Taxation, Labor Law, Law on Insurance, Law on Foreign Exchange, Law on Marriage & Family, Trademark Law, Law on Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, Law on Mineral Resource Management and Exploitation, and Law on the Dividing of Property.

These and other laws can be found at:

7.2. Government websites

7.3. ECCC Websites and Electronic Resources

7.4. Printed and Online Resources on the Cambodian Legal System and Law Reform

  • Introduction to Cambodian Law, by Kong Phallack, Hor Peng and Jorg Menzel. Contains an overview of the Cambodia legal and judicial system as well as chapters on specific legal areas such as Civil Law, Administrative law, Labor law and the ECCC.
  • Legal System of Cambodia, by Siphana Sok and Denora Sarin. Contains an historical overview, discussions of the sources of law and key legal principles, and descriptions of relevant institutions.
  • “Cambodia” article in Legal Systems of the World: A Political, Social, and Cultural Encyclopedia, vol. 1, pages 240-244. Contain sections on the legal system, legal concepts, judiciary and impact.
  • The Cambodian Constitutions (1953-1993), by Raoul M. Jennar provides the text of the various constitutions that have governed Cambodia since 1947.
  • Introduction to the Cambodian Judicial Process, by Koy Neam. Provides an overview of the judicial system in Cambodia, including its structure, and a step-by-step guide to judicial procedures.
  • Legal Profession in Cambodia, by Ky Tech et al.
  • International Conference on Cambodian Legal and Judicial Reform in the Context of Sustainable Development, edited by Sok Siphana (1998)
  • Problems Facing the Cambodian Legal System by Fernando, Basil
  • Cambodia, the Justice System and Violations of Human Rights, by Ross, James
  • Rebuilding Cambodia: Human Resources, Human Rights, and Law: Three Essays by Dolores A. Donovan, Sidney Jones and Dinah PoKempner and Robert J. Muscat; Foreign Policy Institute, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, 1993
  • Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya P. Subedi, 5 August 2013, UN Document Number A/HRC/24/36 (linked from the UN Human Rights Council – 24th Session of the Human Rights Council: Reports)
  • The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Final Assessment and Report on 2012 Commune Council Elections
  • Amnesty International, Cambodia: Journalist’s release from prison a step in the right direction, 14 March 2013
  • Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Independent Election Inquiry Needed, 29 September 2013

8. Bibliography (Cambodian History and DK period)

  • David Chandler, A History of Cambodia, 4th ed, 2008
  • Craig Etcheson, The Rise and Demise of Democratic Kampuchea, 1984
  • Elizabeth Becker, When the War was Over, 1998
  • Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, 1996
  • Raoul M Jennar, The Cambodian Constitutions 1953 – 1993, 1995
  • Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare, 2005


[1] WIPO, ‘Cambodia: Code of Civil Procedure of July 2006’. Accessed on 29 January 2019.

[2] Phnom Penh Post, ‘Live blog: Commune elections 2017’ 4 June 2017. Accessed on 29 January 2019.

[3] Cambodia Daily, ‘NEC Releases Official June 4 Election Results’ 26 June 2017. Accessed on 29 January 2019.

[4] UN Office High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia’ (A/HRC/36/61) 27 July 2017 (hereinafter ‘UN SR Report 2017’), para. 59-64

[5] COMFREL, ‘Final Assessment and Report the 2017 Commune Council Eelection’ October 2017. Accessed on 4 February 2019, p. 19.

[6] UN Office High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia: Addendum’ (A/HRC/39/73/Add.1) 7 September 2018 (hereinafter ‘UN SR Addendum’), p. 19.

[7] UN Office High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia: Comments by the State’ (A/HRC/39/73/Add.2) 11 September 2018 (hereinafter ‘Comments by the State’), p. 3; Phnom Penh Post, ‘Government hits back after scathing report from UN’s Smith’ 14 September 2018. Accessed on 29 January 2019.

[8] UN SR Report 2018, para. 75.

[9] Cambodia: “Tremendous challenges in delivering justice for all,” says UN human rights expert, UN Office of the High Commissioner.

[10] Human Rights Watch, ‘Submission to the Universal Periodic Review’ 16 December 2018. Accessed on 29 January 2019.

[11] UN Office High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia’ (A/HRC/27/70) 15 August 2014 (hereinafter ‘UN SR Report 2014’), p. 10.

[12] Phnom Penh Post, ‘Analysis: Judge who will decide the fate of the CNRP is a trusted member of the CPP’ 15 November 2017. Accessed on 29 January 2019.

[13] Cambodia: Answer Demands for Justice in Kem Ley Murder, Human Rights Watch.

[14] A Life Sentence in Cambodia, but Kem Ley’s Murder Is Far From Solved,The New York Times,.

[15] Cambodia: Answer Demands for Justice in Kem Ley Murder, Human Rights Watch.

[16]UN rights experts condemn killing of Cambodian political analyst and activist Kem Ley, UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.

[17] A Life Sentence in Cambodia, but Kem Ley’s Murder Is Far From Solved,The New York Times.

[18] Cambodia: Answer Demands for Justice in Kem Ley Murder, Human Rights Watch

[19] Phnom Penh Post, ‘‘Adhoc 5’ released on bail in case widely seen as political’ 30 June 2017. Accessed on 28 January 2019.

[20] UN SR Report 2018.

[21] UN SR Report 2018, para. 80.

[22] Phnom Penh Post, ‘‘Death of democracy’: CNRP dissolved by Supreme Court ruling’ 17 November 2017. Accessed on 29 January 2019 ; UN Office High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia’ (A/HRC/39/73) 15 August 2018 (hereinafter ‘UN SR Report 2018’), para. 71.

[23] UN SR Addendum, p. 19.

[24] UN SR Addendum, p. 13.

[25] UN SR Report 2017, p. 17.

[26] Comments by the State, p. 5.

[27] BBC, ‘Cambodia releases opposition leader Kem Sokha on bail’ 10 September 2018. Accessed on 29 January 2019.

[28] UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, ‘Opinions adopted by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention at its eighty-first session, 17–26 April 2018’ (A/HRC/WGAD/2018/9) 5 June 2018.

[29] New York Times, ‘A Newspaper Is Sold, and Cambodians Fear the End of Press Freedom’ 7 May 2018. Accessed on 29 January 2019.

[30] UN SR Addendum, para. 40-42.

[31] Radio Free Asia, ‘Statement of Radio Free Asia’s President on Cambodia’ 12 September 2017. Accessed on 4 February 2019.

[32] ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, ‘ASAEN Parliamentarians alarmed by Cambodia Crackdown’, 31 August 2017. Accessed on 1 February 2019.

[33] CCHR Report, p. 31.

[34] European Union External Action Service, ‘Statement on developments relating to restrictions of the political space in Cambodia’ 3 September 2017. Accessed on 4 February 2019.

[35] UN OHCHR, ‘Comment by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on arrest of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha’ 4 September 2017. Accessed on 4 February 2019.

[36] ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, ‘ASAEN Parliamentarians alarmed by Cambodia Crackdown’, 31 August 2017. Accessed on 1 February 2019.

[37] FORUM ASIA, ‘Cambodia: FORUM-ASIA Demands Immediate Release of Kem Sokha’ 3 September 2017. Accessed on 4 February 2019.

[38] FIDH, ‘End repression of political opposition, independent media, and civil society’ 5 September 2017. Accessed on 4 February 2019.

[39] Reuters, ‘Sweden threatens to review engagement with Cambodia’ 19 October 2017. Accessed on 4 February 2019.

[40] Phnom Penh Post, ‘US Senator Ted Cruz warns Hun Sen of bans over Sokha arrest’ 25 October 2017. Accessed on 4 February 2019.