Cambodia has the largest youth and adolescent population in Southeast Asia and, as of 2015,
about two-thirds of the country’s total population is under the age of thirty.11 Despite strong economic
growth and a tourist boom, Cambodia is still recuperating from the systematic execution of 1.7 million
people by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.12 As a result of the Khmer Rouge era,
Cambodia has endured a generation without a functional judicial system. Each day, hundreds of
Cambodians are held in excessive and arbitrary pre-trial detention that subjects them to harsh and
unacceptable living conditions.13 This Article will examine how Cambodia continues to struggle with
the demand for an effective delivery of justice, especially in protecting its juveniles. Part II will
provide a brief history of children’s rights in Cambodia. Part III will discuss the current legal
environment in Cambodia and the changing landscape after the passage of the new juvenile justice
bill in late 2016. Lastly, Part IV will examine possible solutions through the new juvenile justice law
to improve diversion, alternatives to detention, the creation of separate juvenile facilities, and criminal
data collection and centralization in addition to the consideration of Khmer culture and Buddhism in
applying Western-style rule of law.
II. BRIEF HISTORY OF THE KHMER ROUGE AND CHILDREN’S RIGHTS IN CAMBODIA
From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge14 led a mass genocide that killed 1.7 million people by
torture, execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor.15 Pol Pot, the leader of these atrocities, was
driven by an extreme communist ideology inspired by the anti-colonial struggle against France and
wanted to return Cambodia to an agrarian, classless utopia.16 Individuals such as lawyers, urban
residents, the educated, artists, and monks were labeled as enemies and imprisoned in labor camps or
killed.17 Ouk Vandeth, Country Director of the non-governmental organization (“NGO”) IBJ in
Cambodia, recalls that he had to work as a rice farmer and hide his education at a labor camp where
many around him died from starvation and a lack of basic medicine.18 Something as simple as wearing
glasses, practicing Buddhism, or speaking French could mean death. Attempting to destroy
everything in their path, the Khmer Rouge wanted to erase history and restart Cambodia at year zero.19
In 1979, the Vietnamese army along with Cambodian rebels overthrew the Khmer Rouge to establish
11 United Nations Population Fund Cambodia, Fact Sheet – Cambodia Youth Data Sheet 2015, (Feb. 25, 2016),
12 Adam Taylor, Why the World Should Not Forget Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields of Cambodia, WASH. POST (Aug.
7, 2014), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/08/07/why-the-world-should-not-forget-khmer-
13 See generally Defining the Problem, INT’L BRIDGES TO JUST., http://www.ibj.org/programs/defining-the-problem/ (last
visited Dec. 6, 2017).
14 Cambodia’s Brutal Khmer Rouge Regime, BBC NEWS (Aug. 4, 2014), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-
10684399 [hereinafter BBC News]. The Khmer Rouge was a Communist Party in Cambodia that took power in 1975
after a devastating civil war. It pursued ruthless tactics that led to the death of a quarter of the Cambodian population until
they were ousted by Vietnamese and Khmer rebellion forces in 1979.
15 Id.; See also Key Facts on the Khmer Rouge, AL JAZEERA (Feb. 3, 2012),
16 Taylor, supra note 12.
18 International Bridges to Justice, Ouk Vandeth-Country Director for Cambodia, YOUTUBE (June 12, 2017),
19 Taylor, supra note 12.