Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Governor General shortlisted for war crimes tribunal

Tuesday November 29, 2005
29.11.05 1.00pm
By Rachel Pannett

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam - Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright could be set to take a serious leap onto the international stage when her current role ends next year, after being short listed by the United Nations for a Cambodian war crimes tribunal.

The former District and High Court judge is the most high profile of three New Zealand candidates named on the UN website. The others are District Court judges Robert Spear and Fred McElrea.

The UN is helping Cambodia set up special mixed courts to try ageing former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, accused of killing over a million civilians during the 1970s. It is head hunting five international judges to it on the trial and appeal courts. The 11 short listed judges will be interviewed in New York next week.

Dame Silvia, in Vietnam on a state visit designed to promote New Zealand's trade interests, said she was nervous about the interview -- her first since graduating from law school at Otago in 1969.

"If I don't get selected, I will be pink with embarrassment," she told NZPA.

Dame Silvia, who, in her four years as Governor General has evolved the role into that of a high level diplomat, said sitting on the tribunal would fulfill a goal that has been pressing on her conscience since turning down a chance to try Rwandan war criminals in 1995.

"I felt then that it was something I should be doing, but I couldn't for a whole lot of reasons. It has lurked in the back of my mind ever since."

Her previous international experience includes 8 years on a UN committee set up to eliminate discrimination against women.

If appointed, she will face a harrowing task. The Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in 1975 and killed more than a million people during four years of terror and misrule. When the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979 by forces from neighbouring Vietnam, the United States supported the Khmer Rouge exiles and assured their continuing seat in the UN. That kept Cambodian politics in turmoil and prevented the pursuit of justice for the mass killings until March 17, 2003, when, after five years of negotiations, the UN reached a draft agreement with the Cambodian government for the tribunal.

Dame Silvia said her 20 years' experience as a District and High Court judge would make her a good candidate for the role.

"If I am appointed, and become a trial judge, it is going to be really harrowing, no question about that," she said.

"You've got to be physically and mentally strong to cope with even the things that a New Zealand judge does.

"You cannot let it get to you, otherwise you are failing the people who bring their stories before you. You have got to keep the trial going on an even keel, with everyone getting treated the same way.

"It's your job. You go away and you cry in the background, you don't do it in front of people."

Human rights groups fear the Cambodian government's ability to impose its will on the Cambodian judges -- who will make up the majority in both courts -- will pose an obstacle to justice.

It is also feared that, with many likely defendants over the age of 70, time is running out for justice to be served. Many Khmer Rouge leaders have already died of old age, including the notorious Pol Pot and his wife, Khieu Ponnary.

Dame Silvia said today that, if appointed, one of her main tasks would be to work with the other judges to make sure the trial is fair, and independent.

The successful candidates will spend at least a year in Cambodia as the trials play out.

Dame Silvia said her visit to Vietnam has given her an insight into what it would be like to live in this part of the world.

"I'd have to learn some new skills. I've had a pretty privileged life for the last 20-30 years," she said.

"I think it'll be another adventure."

For now, her focus remains on the role of Governor General, and completing the six-day state visit to Vietnam -- her 11th such assignment since 2001.

"This is my job, and I'm going to keep doing it until the day I finish."

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