Auckland law studies lead to an internship in Cambodia

27 April 2016
Adeleina Loto-Meleisea

A Samoan Auckland Law School student is helping to bring alleged war criminals to justice during a six-month internship in Cambodia.

Adeleina Loto-Meleisea is with the Office of Co-Investigating Judges which, as an organ of the United Nations’ assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials, provides technical advice to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

The Office is trying leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime and Adeleina is part of a team that reviews civil party applications from people who consider themselves or their families to be victims of alleged crimes.

It’s estimated that two million people died from 1975 to 1979 as a result of the communist dictatorship.

“Cambodia and the Khmer culture itself is an interesting experience,” she says. “The Khmer people are resilient. They are less than a generation out from genocide, war crimes and civil war, yet they don’t allow that to define them.”

Three official languages are spoken in the office where she works – Khmer, English and French. “I love to hear the different languages, though it does create some obstacles when the documents I need are in two of the languages, neither of which is the one I can read,” Adeleina says. “I am the only non-Khmer in my office so I get to practice my Khmer language listening skills on a daily basis. I love it!”

Adeleina, who is in the final year of her law degree, says she’s pleased that a lot of her work integrates the theory she has learnt at Law School because she has taken on difficult and substantial tasks right from the beginning in Cambodia.

“It’s challenging, but also amazing, to see how the international and national teams work together in areas including translations, domestic and international legal experience and cultural knowledge,” she says. “There are many criticisms of the hybrid tribunal, and I can understand this now that I have worked in one, but there is also a great beauty and success that can only come from this kind of court.”

Adeleina is a Samoan of Chinese heritage and this means she is not a ‘standard’ foreigner in Cambodia. “A lot of the Khmer locals look at me with confusion. They think that I could be Khmer, but I am much bigger than most of them, so then they sometimes think that I might be a rich Khmer (big means you can afford to eat a lot) visiting from overseas.

“I have been questioned so much about why I don’t look like the usual ‘barang’, or foreigner, that I have prepared an e mail about Samoa, complete with photos and maps, to send out to new people that I meet. I love being able to tell people about Samoa and its relationship with New Zealand.”

A former head girl of Manurewa High School, Adeleina has had most of her costs, including flights, covered by the Auckland Law School, topped-up with a Rangatahi Youth Scholarship funded by the Manurewa Local Board.

She wants to use her Cambodian experience to pursue her interest in Pasifika issues and indigenous rights in New Zealand. “The more I can understand subjects such as accountability in government and the balance between justice and peace, the better equipped I will be to become an advocate in these areas when I get back at the end of July.”