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Law Students Help to Bring War Criminals to Justice

Four students from Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law are living justice with global impact through an internship with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. This international ad hoc tribunal was set up in Cambodia to try former members of the Khmer Rouge regime for international crimes committed when the regime was in power from 1975-79. The law students currently interning with the tribunal, Lena Buttkus, Tiffany McElhaney, Jeffrey Nelson and Becca Schueller, work directly with two legal officers with the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials.

“This is a really incredible, unique opportunity to work for an international tribunal that is really the essence of international law in action,” said Buttkus, a German native who came to the United States after high school.

Cambodia experienced one of the worst genocides of the 20th century in the 1970s, during which approximately a quarter of the country’s population perished as Khmer Rouge’s leader, Pol Pot, committed mass killings that left an estimated 1.7 million people dead and millions more Cambodian citizens victimized. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia was established in 2006 to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Cambodia during the 1970s and hold those responsible accountable for the offenses.

Currently, the interning students are reviewing witnesses’ testimony transcripts and original source material from expert witnesses and creating summary documents to be inputted in case software. The students’ tasks range from summarizing hundreds of pages of court transcripts from the Tribunal or past trials to reading and summarizing expert witnesses’ books.

The students are completing their internships remotely, with their communications and submissions to the Tribunal occurring electronically. While the remote nature of the assignments provides some obstacles, the students are enjoying working on a legal project that has a real impact.

“I enjoy that we are doing meaningful work that has actual relevance in the world,” said Nelson, who has interest in the judicial field after externing with the United States District Court Northern District of Ohio earlier this year. “There’s a huge public interest in these cases in Cambodia. This is about more than just prosecuting these men, the public needs answers about what occurred as well.”

Most of the interns had very little knowledge of Cambodia and the international war crimes that occurred in the country during the Khmer Rouge regime prior to starting their work. The internship is giving them the opportunity to learn about a major international case that they otherwise would never have had the opportunity to study in-depth.

All four students are enrolled in Professor and Associate Dean for Faculty Enrichment Milena Sterio’s International Law course. Last semester, three students from Sterio’s International War Crimes course interned with the Cambodia Tribunal and the officers recruited more students this semester after being impressed with the work.

While the work the students are doing is confined to the Cambodia tribunal, the international nature of these crimes and the United Nations’ involvement relate to greater concepts covered in their International Law course. The specifics of the cases also tie into the students' Criminal Procedure and Evidence coursework and sharpen their reading and analytical skills.