Stanford students Havi Mirell (fourth from left) and Daniel Mattes (second from right) with the rest of the trial monitoring team, including members from...

On April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia by violent overthrow of the Lon Nol government.  The secretive leaders of this radical Maoist regime ruled Cambodia for a period of 3 years, 8 months and 20 days, during which time at least 1.7 million people are believed to have died from starvation, torture, execution and forced labor.  Now, more than three decades after the Khmer Rouge fell from power, the alleged perpetrators of the genocide are being put on trial in Phnom Penh before a hybrid international criminal tribunal known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

As part of its “Asian International Justice Initiative,” the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice has been collaborating with the East-West Center to maintain a regional trial monitoring presence at the ECCC, to report on the proceedings, publish analyses of the institution’s progress, and produce film and television segments to make the proceedings more accessible to the Cambodian public.  As part of this program, the Handa Center has been sending student interns to Cambodia to serve as members of the international monitoring team and conduct research for monitoring publications.

“The trial monitoring team is in court every day the court is in session,” said Handa Center Director David Cohen.  “This is a joint United Nations and Cambodian tribunal that deals directly with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge genocide.” 

The monitoring team writes weekly reports that are posted on the web ( in both English and Khmer.  The goal is to make this incredibly complex international trial understandable for a lay audience including students, international civil society, ordinary Cambodians, and members of the Cambodian diaspora. In addition to the written reports, the team also uses television as a medium for reaching a wider audience, including those with limited literacy.  Monitors work with producers from local partner Khmer Mekong Films to synthesize and present highlights selected from the nearly 20–25 hours of trial footage each week to the Cambodian public on a television talk show.  The trial monitors play a pivotal role in shaping the weekly program.  Their job is to take the hours upon hours of court footage and highlight 12–15 minutes worth of clips that would best represent the week’s events in the courtroom.

“The TV producers are not legally trained, so they need some assistance identifying what is most important in the trial.  Since our trial monitors are in court every day and following the proceedings very closely, they are able to provide this assistance,” said Cohen.  “We identify and guide them to notable moments in the courtroom video.”

Additionally, trial monitors review all scripts for factual and legal accuracy as well as objectivity. 

“When you’re translating legal concepts into more basic language, you must make sure you’re not foregoing accuracy in the process,” said associate director for the center, Penelope Van Tuyl, who is a trained lawyer.  “Although simplified, you still must accurately convey the basis for a particular conviction or the meaning of a certain allegation. We want the viewing public to be able to understand the factual findings of these proceedings as well as the core principles of fair trial rights in action in the courtroom.” 

The first edition of the show for Case 001 was called “Duch on Trial.”  When Case 002 began, the associated television programming was called “Facing Justice.”  These weekly programs air on Cambodian network television and are also available online.  The network broadcasts have reportedly attracted up to 3 million viewers each week and have become a primary source of information for the Cambodian people according to Time Magazine, which called “Duch on Trial” a “sleeper hit.”

“With one in five Cambodians watching the show every week,” wrote Time correspondent Christopher Shay, “‘Duch on Trial’ has become the main way many young Cambodians—who were not taught about the Khmer Rouge in school—learn about the historic Khmer Rouge tribunal unfolding in Phnom Penh.”

The Khmer Rouge trial monitoring project is just one of several human rights and international justice projects the Handa Center has ongoing.  Since its founding in 2000 (as the War Crimes Studies Center at UC Berkeley), the Center has hosted projects in many overseas locations, including Indonesia, East Timor, Rwanda, Bangladesh, and Sierra Leone.  In addition to trial monitoring, the projects have ranged from a freedom of religion study in the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to human rights training for justice sector personnel (judges, prosecutors and police) and civil society entities, like NGOs.

All of this speaks to the wide-ranging engagement the Handa Center has in the human rights field, the diversity of its research, and how it sets itself apart from other human rights organizations.

“One thing that makes us different is that we are a university-based human rights organization with a mission to give highly motivated young people, like the students you find at Stanford, the opportunity to get actual field experience, which is an absolute prerequisite for a career in human rights,” Cohen said.

Having moved from Berkeley at the end of 2013, the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice is new to Stanford University and has found a home in the Stanford Global Studies Division (SGS).

“It’s such a great opportunity for the Center to come here and be part of SGS.  It has the infrastructure and community in place from which we can draw students and find ways to collaborate with the other international centers,” said Van Tuyl

Students interested in war crimes tribunal monitoring, the human rights field, or international justice are invited to get in touch with either Director David Cohen or Associate Director Penelope Van Tuyl through email, and are encouraged to take one of their upcoming courses.  This coming fall the Handa Center also plans to host a series of information sessions for students to advertise the various ways students can get involved through internships and research projects. 

To view episodes of “Duch on Trial” visit the Khmer Rouge Trial Monitoring blog [website]. For more information about the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice, visit the website.