Victims of alleged land-grabs by the Cambodian state filed a complaint Tuesday with the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague asking that the body investigate their evictions as a crime against humanity.
The complaint, submitted by Richard Rogers -- a lawyer who formerly worked at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal -- accuses the current Cambodian government, or “ruling elite,” of illegally seizing thousands of hectares of valuable land and redistributing it to government cronies or corporations, and of violently cracking down on those who resist eviction.
“There is a reasonable basis to believe that members of the Ruling Elite have committed, aided and abetted, ordered and/or incited the crimes of forcible transfer, murder, illegal imprisonment, other inhumane acts,” the filing states.
“These crimes form part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, pursuant to a State policy, and amount to crimes against humanity.”
Rights organizations believe 770,000 Cambodians have been evicted from their land and that about 400,000 hectares have been confiscated.
“In furtherance of its objective of self-enrichment, the Ruling Elite have committed forcible transfer, murder, illegal imprisonment, other inhumane acts, and persecution,” the filing states.
“Once displaced, many evictees have been forced to live in squalid conditions and have suffered from food insecurity and life-threatening illnesses as the authorities omit to provide adequate housing, healthcare, or sanitation, in full awareness of the consequence,” it continues.
The ICC will now have to decide whether to order an investigation.
The seizure of land from rural smallholders and ethnic minority villagers by the state or corporations has long been one of the most contentious issues in the country, and widely condemned by the international community.
Violent land evictions, often with the help of state security forces, have mobilized many victims in recent years and seen large protests.
While many evictions occur in the rural areas - with poor farmers relocated to make way for rubber or sugarcane plantations - one of the most high profile cases in recent years was at Beong Kak lake in central Phnom Penh, where thousands of families were violently evicted to make way for a real estate project by a ruling party senator.
The World Bank subsequently halted funding to Cambodia over the issue.
In 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen put a moratorium on the granting of new concessions and established a land-titling program that has seen many Cambodians granted titles to protect their land.
However, critics have said the process lacked transparency and the moratorium never fully took effect.
Phay Siphan, a chief government spokesman, dismissed The Hague complaint as “political,” saying that the country’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was involved with it.
“Those allegations don’t have any solid ground. It’s not strong enough,” he said, adding that only a small number of complaints had been filed with local courts --1,263.
Likewise, he maintained, Cambodia’s own harrowing past was reason enough for the government to be wary of mass evictions. In the 1970s when the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge took over the country, they forced all urban dwellers to move into the countryside to work as peasant farmers. More than 1.7 million people were killed or died of starvation under the 4-year regime.
“We learned a lot from the 1970s,” Siphan said.