On Thursday 16 February 2017, the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice, in conjunction with Khmer Mekong Films and with the generous support of the British Embassy of Phnom Penh, held a film screening and forum on sexual and gender- based violence experienced during the Democratic Kampuchea regime and contemporary Cambodia. Approximately 50 people attended the event, which was held at the Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE), with additional support from RULE’s Center for the Study of Humanitarian Law (CSHL). The event opened with remarks from Mr. Cashel Gleeson, Deputy Head of Mission and HM’s Consul at the British Embassy in Phnom Penh. Mr. Gleeson presented the global efforts of the British Government to prevent sexual violence in conflict and he related the Cambodian experience to the challenge of sexual violence in other post-conflict settings such as Iraq, where he was previously posted.
The film screened was Episode 5 from the “Time to Speak Out” series, a mini-series produced and broadcast on Cambodian television channels CTN and MyTV on the topic of forced marriage and sexual violence under the Democratic Kampuchea regime and the ongoing trial proceedings in Case 002/02 to prosecute such crimes before the Extraordinary Chambers
in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Episode 5 particularly focused on the reparations projects and other civil society initiatives that are fostering dialogue concerning these issues outside the formal legal setting. Particular emphasis from the Civil Party lawyers at the Court and civil society partners has focused on encouraging innovative discussion among younger generations to better understand how historical experiences of sexual violence continue to impact survivors and their families even today, in the form of domestic violence or community stigmatization, among others.
Following the screening, a panel discussion was held on sexual and gender-based violence in the Democratic Kampuchea regime, the prosecution of such crimes before the ECCC, and the impact of these crimes on Cambodia today today. The panel, facilitated by WSD Handa Center consultant, Daniel Mattes, featured three distinguished professionals in areas concerning the intersection of transitional justice and sexual violence. The three panelists included: Marie Guiraud, the International Lead Co-Lawyer for the Civil Parties in Case 002 before the ECCC, who has extensive experience in civil party representation and international human rights; Sotheary Yim, the program coordinator at the local organization Kdei Karuna and a Clinical Psychologist and Trauma Therapist with over ten years of experience in the social development sector in Cambodia and especially working with survivors of trauma from the Khmer Rouge era; and, lastly, Professor David Cohen, the Director of the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Stanford University, who brought his extensive expertise in the field of human rights, international law and transitional justice, after having led justice sector reform initiatives and tribunal- monitoring programs in Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Rwanda, and Cambodia.
The three panelists presented brief statements on issues pertaining to: the prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence in international law and at the ECCC in particular; the challenges faced in persecuting these crimes; and, how experiences of gender-based violence during the Khmer Rouge regime relate to the lives of and challenges facing Cambodia’s younger generations. This was followed by further discussion and several questions asked by Kimsan Soy, who is the Director of the CSHL at RULE.
Marie Guiraud described a key challenge in prosecuting sexual violence at the ECCC: in their Introductory Submission for Case 002, the Prosecutors did not include facts related to sexual violence or forced marriage. Civil Party lawyers had to instead file requests to the investigating judges in order to include facts related to sexual violence in the investigation. This required individual Civil Parties to “speak out” about their experiences, which could lead to stigma or re-traumatization, as noted by Sotheary Yim in her next comments.
Sotheary Yim explained that the post-traumatic stress disorder associated with sexual abuse is “the most difficult we, as psychotherapists, receive.” Victims of sexual violence, as in the cases before the ECCC, rarely seek out help because they are commonly held accountable, rather than the perpetrators of sexual violence. Sotheary Yim related the trauma from gender-based violence committed during the Khmer Rouge era to the many cases of rape reported in the Cambodian press on a daily basis. She implored the younger generations attending the event to become educated and combat the stigma commonly associated with gender-based violence.
David Cohen related the experiences of sexual and gender-based violence in the Khmer Rouge era to similar international tribunals established for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia. He noted that rape had been one of the crimes prosecuted at Tokyo after the Second World War, but it was by no means a priority for international jurisprudence for war crimes and crimes against humanity until the cases in the Former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. David Cohen professed that it is an unfortunate fact that during humanitarian crises, in war or genocide, sexual violence will inevitably become a means of exerting absolute control over other human beings.
The event concluded with some questions from a member of the audience, CSHL director Kimsan Soy, who asked the panel firstly about the impact of the ECCC on the work of domestic courts to address contemporary sexual violence in Cambodia, and secondly how to speak to those with such experiences without stigmatizing or retraumatizing them further. Marie Guiraud explained that part of the ECCC’s legacy is the training of a whole new generation of legal professionals who gained experience at the ECCC and can bring their knowledge of the prosecution of sexual crimes to domestic judicial processes. Further, she noted that Cambodian Law allows for victims’ associations - like the Civil Parties whom she represents at the ECCC - to trigger criminal action before Cambodian courts. Sotheary Yim explained that the ECCC offers one step to encourage a change in attitude towards gender-based violence, but that education and action within communities are also required. She also emphasized that, when approaching individuals who may have experienced sexual violence, it is important not to interrogate them but “to show your heart” and offer empathy. She recommended active listening and mentioned her own organization’s use of round-table discussions of survivors and younger people alongside professionals, counsellors, and psychotherapists, as one comprehensive option in the toolkit for greater social development. Professor Cohen reiterated that victims of sexual violence are often ostracized for speaking out if societal norms dictate that a victim receive stigmatization rather than empathy and community reintegration. The panelists, therefore, all sought to change the way younger generations view sexual and gender based violence. CSHL Director Kimsan Soy closed the event with some words of encouragement for the audience — largely made up of students — thanking them for attending and showing interest in the subject even during their mid-term exams, but reminding them to use these lessons learned from previous generations as the tools for change in Cambodia today.