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The Struggle of Cambodian Survivors of Conflict Related Sexual Violence to obtain Reparations

“Left Without Calla”




By Julie Bardèche and Alejandra Vicente


Julie Bardèche is Legal Advisor at REDRESS. Prior to that, she worked as a Legal Officer for the International Co-Investigating Judge at UNAKRT in Cambodia for five years. Between 2011 and 2013, she practiced at the Paris (France) Bar for two years, where she represented asylum seekers and practiced criminal law, among others.

Alejandra Vicente is Head of Law at REDRESS. Previously she was the Legal Director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL). She is a member of the secretariat of the GQUAL campaign, which seeks to achieve gender parity in the composition of international courts and human rights tribunals. Prior to joining CEJIL, Alejandra worked for five years at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).


1. Introduction


While the scope and number of survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in Cambodia is understudied, the available data shows that CRSV took place in a widespread manner during the Khmer Rouge regime. The regime resulted in the commission of hideous international crimes between 1975 and 1979. CRSV took place in almost every region of Cambodia and affected all genders, including members of the LGBTIQ+ community.


In the more than 40 years that have passed since the end of the conflict, Cambodia has failed to respond to survivors of CRSV, to recognise its responsibility towards victims and redress their harm. Meanwhile, survivors have aged and still suffer from the physical, mental and social harms caused by the violations inflicted on them.


In this blog piece, we examine the scope and prevalence of CRSV during the Khmer Rouge regime and the main obstacles that victims face in realising their right to reparations. We further explore what survivors’ perceptions are today on effective reparation. Finally, we draw some conclusions and explore the steps that the Cambodian authorities, civil society, and the international community could take to help survivors in their plight for redress.


This blog piece is based on a detailed report that will be released in the coming months by REDRESS and our Cambodian partner, Kdei Karuna (KdK), on opportunities for reparations for CRSV in Cambodia. The report is part of a multi-country study led by the Global Survivors Fund to fill the gap that exists around the world to honour the right of reparations for survivors of CRSV.


2. Scope of conflict related sexual violence in Cambodia


The atrocious crimes committed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime resulted in the deaths of approximately one quarter of the Cambodian population. The regime was characterised by the total centralisation of power over Cambodian society by the “Angkar (‘organisation’ in Khmer language), the entity that led the country.


As part of the Khmer Rouge’s objective to break down traditional social structures and family ties, the regime organised widespread forced marriage ceremonies throughout the country (ECCC, Case 002/02, Summary of Judgment). Some estimates refer to approximately 250,000 women being forced to marry over this period (Christopher G Moore, 2011). Such marriages were held in a systematic manner, in mass ceremonies contrary to Cambodian tradition. Couples had no choice of partner and after the ceremonies, they were forced to engage in sexual intercourse, often in front of Khmer Rouge soldiers. Forced marriages affected both the female and the male parties to the marriage.



Photo 1: shows a forced group marriage ceremony: Young men and women attend a wedding ceremony during Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979). 
Photo 2: shows an individual marriage at the Tuol Sleng Prison: A forced marriage at the Tuol Sleng Prison during Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979).

The Khmer Rouge equated gender identity to sex assigned by birth, either forcing trans individuals to marry people from the opposite biological sex, or someone of the same sex assigned at birth if the Khmer Rouge were unaware of them being trans (Jarrett Davis, Heike Lippmann, and Glenn Miles, 2014). Many members of the LGBTIQ+ community who survived the Khmer Rouge regime have reported having been threatened, abused or harassed due to their sexuality during the regime.


Contrary to misconceptions, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) was prevalent beyond forced marriage during the Khmer Rouge regime. It occurred in a variety of contexts, including gang rapes and rape prior to execution at killing fields, rapes in Khmer Rouge cooperatives, sexual exploitation and sexual slavery (GBV under the Khmer Rouge Information Platform). Victims would not even dare to report the crime, as the punishment for a “moral offence” under the Khmer Rouge regime was independent of whether the sexual act was consensual. As such, victims who reported it would be further punished.


Rape and forced marriages were the most used forms of sexual violence reported by survivors. Other forms of SGBV were also prevalent during the Khmer Rouge regime and include genital mutilation, forced nudity, sexual slavery and sexual humiliation and abuse. Some survivors witnessed “[t]he public display of removed sexual organs, dead naked bodies being left in the open, sometimes with evidence of rape with a foreign object” (Rochelle Braaf, 2014).



Photo 1: Skulls Shrine: Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls.
Photo 2: Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre: Choeung Ek is the site of a former orchard and mass grave of victims of the Khmer Rouge – killed between 1975 and 1979 – in Dangkao Section, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Today is the site of a memorial.
Photo 3: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum: The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, chronicling the Cambodian genocide. The site is a former high school which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. The two children standing survived.

Survivors of CRSV in Cambodia suffer from long-term physical ailments that impact their quality of life. Sexual violence left many women with ongoing gynaecological issues (Judith Strasser, 2015). The acute psychological impacts still experienced by survivors include anger, shame, flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, insomnia, depression, memory loss, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts among others. Some survivors interviewed by REDRESS and KdK mentioned that they suffer from “baksbat”, which translates as “broken courage”.


In Cambodia, the calla lily flower, a sign of good luck, plays an important role in the rituals of weddings. Wedding ceremonies typically last three days during which the couple gets married surrounded by family and members of the community. Couples who were forcefully married outside the Cambodian wedding traditions during the Khmer Rouge regime are said to have been married “without calla”. This is considered a sign of bad luck, resulting in long-lasting stigma to the survivors, their families, and communities.


The stigma attached to sexual violence also impacts the socio-economic status of survivors, and many of them currently live in poverty. In particular, forced marriages imposed significant emotional hardship and trauma on the family, enabling an environment conducive to abuse, particularly domestic violence.


3. The obstacles to reparations for CRSV in Cambodia


To date, the Cambodian government has not acknowledged responsibility for any wrongdoing during the Khmer Rouge regime, including for CRSV. In 2013, the CEDAW Committee urged Cambodia, “[t]o provide effective redress to victims of [SGBV], in particular sexual violence, against women committed during the Khmer Rouge regime and consider to develop effective non-judicial transitional justice programmes, including the provision of adequate reparation and psychological and other appropriate support”. Despite a couple of dialogues that took place in 2014 and 2015 between UN Women and the Cambodian authorities, the State took no further action and the CEDAW recommendations remain unimplemented.


In the absence of action by the Cambodian government, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) have provided the only opportunity for CRSV survivors to obtain court-ordered reparations. Yet, these have been limited to date.


Initially, the ECCC prosecution office had no focus on CRSV in its strategy (Theresa de Langis, 2012). Case 001 focused on the prosecution of Kaing Guek Eav (alias Duch), the director of the S-21 Security Centre in Phnom Penh (Tuol Sleng). He was convicted of one act of rape as a form of torture under the umbrella of crimes against humanity. No CRSV-specific reparations were requested or ordered in this case.


Case 002 related to four defendants - Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Ieng Tirith and Nuon Chea - for their respective prominent roles in the Angkar. It extended to virtually the whole country and the whole Khmer Rouge period. It was severed into two cases – 002/01, focusing on forcible population transfers and one security centre, and 002/02, focusing on crimes committed at security centres, killing fields and other locations throughout the country and policies relating to them. Case 002/02 included, among other crimes, forced marriages and some allegations of rape.


In the Case 002 trial, the victims participated as a consolidated group and the focus was on “collective and moral” reparations, as per the ECCC’s statute and rules. The Court prioritised reparations which “encompass the entire consolidated group of [victims]”, regardless of the specific harms suffered by the individual victims. The Court also awarded reparations which were described as “benefiting the wider community of unrepresented victims”, including a Remembrance Day and several art and education projects.


In Case 002/01, the Trial Chamber endorsed 11 reparation projects, including public memorials; the construction and maintenance of a regional community peace learning centre; mental health programmes, including testimonial therapy sessions; permanent exhibitions on aspects of Case 002/01; new educational material for teachers; and the distribution of the trial judgment and relevant informational material.


In Case 002/02, the Trial Chamber recognised 13 further reparations projects, categorised as constituting guarantees of non-repetition, measures of satisfaction, and rehabilitative measures. Under guarantees of non-repetition, the Court recognised an application on Khmer Rouge history, a workshop for Khmer Rouge history teachers, a media project promoting civil courage, a community media project exploring the experiences of the Cham ethnic group, a classical dance performance about forced marriage, an exhibition on the experience of ethnic minorities during the regime, and a legal and civic education project for minority victims. Under the category of measures of satisfaction, the Chamber recognised an illustrated book of the accounts of victims who participated, a song writing contest, an exhibition about a security centre, and a repository of documents related to the trial. Under the category of rehabilitative measures, the Chamber recognised two final projects which provided mental and physical health services.


It is difficult to quantify how many CRSV survivors benefited from the projects ordered by the ECCC in Case 002, as many had experienced other crimes and might have been part of projects based on that. The only CRSV-specific reparation project was the “Phka Sla Krom Angkar” or “Wedding Flowers Bestowed by the Organization”, which included the artistic memorialization of shared experiences, intergenerational dialogue, participatory documentation, therapeutic support, and research regarding forced marriage under the Khmer Rouge. The project benefited approximately 1,500 survivors (KdK Annual Report, 2017).


Finally, a project called “Promoting Gender Equality and Improving Access to Justice for Female Survivors and Victims of Gender-based Violence under the Khmer Rouge regime” was a non-judicial measure. It was implemented with the aim of addressing broader interests of victims than those addressed by the ECCC’s judicial or reparations measures (which were linked to the specific crimes of each case). This project included testimonial therapy as an innovative form of treatment, which was well received by the survivors as a way to share their trauma and create solidarity networks and support groups among them.


Despite the above, the measures awarded to CRSV survivors by the ECCC have significant shortcomings. Firstly, the measures ordered have little connection with those responsible for the harm, so they fail to deliver a sense of recognition, to reflect the views of survivors and to attain their symbolic significance (Rachel Killean and Luke Moffet, 2020). Secondly, the reparation projects lacked State support, were entirely donor-funded, were fully implemented by NGOs, and many were already ongoing before the ECCC recognised them as reparation projects.


Thirdly, many survivors were disappointed that the ECCC limited its awards to collective reparations, as they continue to live in poverty. Fourthly, survivors were not widely reached and many never learned or benefited from the projects implemented. They were not properly consulted in the process. Finally, there was a lack of gender sensitivity within the ECCC, that resulted in the lack of a comprehensive strategy on gender to consider CRSV crimes (Theresa de Langis, 2012).


4. What do survivors want?


In a dialogue organised by UN Women in 2015 between CRSV survivors and representatives of the Cambodian government, seven main requests by survivors were identified: 1) Obtaining ID-Poor cards, which are ID cards that provide access to free mental health services; 2) constructing memorials for CRSV survivors; 3) accessing high-quality mental health services; 4) public and official recognition of CRSV through a commemorative day; 5) a private psychiatric hospital , which could provide a safe environment for survivors; 6) creating a centre for elderly survivors, and; 7) creating an association gathering all CRSV victims, supported by public funds (Strasser et al, 2015).


The recent consultations conducted by KdK and REDRESS with survivors also highlighted their wish for monetary compensation, rehabilitation (particularly access to medical care), memorialization, reparations for the children of the survivors, and ID cards to get certain social benefits.


Despite these wishes and the age of survivors, the situation in Cambodia remains challenging, with the ECCC reaching the end of its mandate, and the government of Cambodia’s weak political will to look at the past.


5. Is there a way forward?


Despite the limited impact that the ECCC has had so far to ensure the right to reparation for CRSV survivors, its residual functions as related to victims present an opportunity for the further implementation of reparations.


The Draft Addendum to the Agreement between the United Nations and the Royal Government of Cambodia (Draft Addendum) provides for an initial period of three years, starting upon completion of the judicial proceedings (including any appeals), during which the ECCC will continue to carry out residual functions.


Among such residual functions, the Draft Addendum notes that the ECCC shall continue to provide for the protection of victims and witnesses and monitor the enforcement of reparations awards, as required. The ECCC appears to be taking a broad view of their residual mandate with respect to victims, as they recently issued a public “Call for Contribution of Ideas” concerning the ECCC’s residual functions in relation to victims.


Further, the Office of Administration of the ECCC appointed two co-rapporteurs on residual functions related to victims, to provide “explanations for and recommendations on possible undertakings appropriate to and meaningful for victims encompassed in the jurisdiction of the [ECCC]”. The Call specified that contributions should explain “how the proposed initiatives would be meaningful and of lasting assistance for Civil Parties, victims of the Khmer Rouge regime and the general public”. It also specified that the term ‘victim’ should be interpreted broadly and is not limited to those who participated in legal proceedings before the ECCC. Therefore, there seems to be room for engagement with survivors beyond witness and victim protection or past reparations projects, and beyond the factual scope of the ECCC case files.


In our view, the ECCC should work closely with the survivor groups and with the government of Cambodia to maximise its impact by assisting survivors and contributing to memorialization projects related to CRSV.


Additionally, given the potentially limited resources to implement far-reaching national reparation programmes, the Cambodian government should consider the implementation of measures that respond to the most urgent needs of survivors. This includes providing pensions or the payment of lump sums, free of charge medical and psychological assistance, and access to scholarships and vocational training for the children of survivors.


Further, the Cambodian government should design a plan to undertake legal and policy reforms with a view to reduce and prevent SGBV, eliminate discrimination, and ensure access to an effective remedy for survivors and others affected by this ongoing type of violence.


Finally, it is key that the international community supports survivor groups and organisations working with them, to strengthen solidarity networks and initiatives that fill the reparation gap experienced by CRSV survivors.


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