Cambodia’s “ruling elite” and other groups accused of violent land grabs that have displaced poor farmers should be investigated for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, according to a complaint filed at The Hague-based tribunal Tuesday.
The forced land evictions by senior officials, the security forces, and government-connected business leaders are part of a “widespread and systematic attack” on the country’s civilian population, said the complaint, filed by London-based lawyer Richard Rogers.
They have confiscated land from hundreds of thousands of Cambodians over more than a decade for the purpose of “self-enrichment and maintaining power at all costs,” said Rogers, a partner at the London-based firm Global Diligence LLP.
Credible non-governmental organizations estimate that 770,000 people have been adversely affected by land grabbing covering at least four million hectares (nearly 10 million acres) of land that have been confiscated, according to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) which is involved in Rogers' lawsuit.
“This case alleges that the situation in Cambodia satisfies … the legal elements of crimes against humanity and it’s also reached the level where international law should become engaged and where the ICC should act,” Rogers told RFA’s Khmer Service in an interview from The Hague.
The complaint cites NGO estimates that a “significant proportion” of the displaced have been forcibly relocated and left in “squalid conditions.”
“Thousands more” face the imminent threat [of forced eviction] throughout Cambodia, it said, adding that in the first three months of 2014 an estimated 20,000 people became new victims of land grabbing conflicts.
According to the complaint, attacks against the civilian population were not limited to those who challenged land grabs, but also any who were seen as a threat to the ruling elite’s power, including civil society leaders, monks, journalists, lawyers, environmental activists, trade unionists, protesters and opposition politicians.
“Dissidents have been assassinated, murdered, beaten-up, subjected to trumped-up charges and illegal detention, and persecuted due their opposition to the Ruling Elite,” the complaint alleges, adding that in recent years those in power have relied heavily on “a corrupt judiciary” to crush dissent.
Rogers said he had decided to file the complaint with the ICC because victims of the alleged crimes could not expect to receive justice through Cambodia’s court system.
“Because the courts are tainted by bias and ultimately serve the power interests in Cambodia, then there’s no chance that there could be a fair trial in Cambodia for the victims,” he said.
Cambodia’s Housing Rights Task Force secretariat director Sia Phearum agreed that villagers have little hope in resolving their complaints through the local judiciary.
“Villagers involved in land disputes are just like ants submerged in a flood—they are grasping at anything they can,” he said.
“The people will feel at ease if the [ICC] can prosecute the perpetrators.”
Anyone can file a complaint with the office of ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, and she must decide whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant an official investigation.
Cambodia ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC in March 2002, giving the ICC jurisdiction over crimes committed since July 1 of that year on its territory or by its nationals.
Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Tith Sothea dismissed the complaint as “politically motivated against the government.”
“The government has a mechanism to resolve the land issue and has already resolved the problem effectively,” he said.
“The lawyer is biased toward the opposition [Cambodia National Rescue Party]. He is defaming Cambodia.”
Rogers said that while the CNRP had “helped to facilitate” his investigation after initially asking him to look into authorities’ use of violence against demonstrators, “it was the victims themselves who asked me to expand the investigation and to cover the whole range of crimes” in the complaint.
“This is a legal issue and this is about victims of very serious crimes, and we would hope that the government would care a little bit more about the victims, rather than simply trying to claim that this is part of the internal politics of Cambodia,” he said.
Land disputes are a bitter problem for Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights to Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
The country’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Reported by So Chivy and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.