Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Ordinary Theatre and Extraordinary Law at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Ordinary Theatre and Extraordinary Law at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper examines Cambodia's current international criminal tribunal (ICT)-the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC)--using a critical geopolitics of justice approach. This approach holds that ICTs necessarily work within an existing geopolitical terrain and that, as public events, they also exceed their formal mandates. With reference to the Cambodian case these two insights are expanded to consider questions of preceding justice and memorial initiatives and the performativity of law and sovereignty. I specifically explore the charge of 'show trial' that circulates in international English-language mass media discourse on the ECCC. I argue that this charge unthinkingly revives the geopolitical ostracism of Cambodia that occurred in the period following Khmer Rouge rule and misrecognises the productively theatrical nature of the legal event. There is a critical need to interrogate the normative claim that international criminal justice be 'not only done, but seen to be done'. This paper calls instead for a recognition of international(ised) legal events in terms of their productive theatricality and performative force.

Keywords: critical geopolitics, justice, performativity, show trial, Khmer Rouge, Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia


The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, formally known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), is a 'hybrid' international criminal tribunal (ICT) located in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. A hybrid ICT brings both international and national law to bear on alleged crimes. The ECCC is tasked with bringing to trial 'senior leaders and those most responsible' for crimes committed during Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. In the period 2006 to 2014, it has found three former Khmer Rouge figures-Kaing Guek Eav, Khieu Samphan, and Noun Chea--guilty of crimes against humanity, and has sentenced them to life imprisonment.

The field of critical geopolitics has recently developed an explicit interest in international criminal law. Alex Jeffrey's (2009) analysis of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and his call for further interrogation of 'the critical geopolitics of justice' (Jeffrey, 2011) leads this emergent interest. At the same time, ongoing scholarship in development geography provides analyses of postconflict initiatives--legal and non-legal-and their relationship to past geographies of conflict and violence (see Baird and Le Billon, 2012; Nevins, 2005; Oglesby and Ross, 2009). This paper contributes to these overlapping fields by offering an analysis of the relationship between a current ICT and a number of preceding justice and memory initiatives in Cambodia. To do this, notions of performativity taken from critical legal studies are brought together with those already animating the field of critical geopolitics. Overall, this paper argues for further critical engagement with the normative justice claims that attend international tribunals, particularly where such calls are situated within essentialising and denigrating mass media and diplomatic discourses.

In its analysis of the ECCC, this paper first examines Khmer Rouge rule (1975-79) and the geopolitics of its aftermath (1979-91). I discuss an earlier (1979) tribunal in Cambodia, the UN-Cambodia negotiations that led to the ECCC (1999-2003), and the charge of 'show trial' that has dogged both the earlier and current tribunal. Building on this discussion, I critically redeploy the notion of justice 'seen to be done' by examining the productive theatricality of the tribunal, guided by critical studies of the (necessary) theatricality of law. Last, I show how an attunement to the ordinary performativity of these Extraordinary Chambers suggests that the force of the ECCC inheres in the public 'doings' of law that are constitutive of the possibility of justice.

The critical geopolitics of justice

Geography has recently begun to engage with the spatial aspects of judicial mechanisms, particularly internationally supported criminal tribunals, set up in periods of political transformation and change in postconflict contexts (Jeffrey, 2011, page 344). …

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