Thursday, January 26, 2006

Genocide, justice and fear

January 25, 2006

At a former military complex outside the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh last week, military authorities handed over a group of new buildings to a United Nations-Cambodian organization. The buildings will serve as a center for investigating and ultimately trying some of the surviving former leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge - 27 years after that radical Communist party fell from power.

This process of justice, which is finally supposed to begin next month and may take three years, has been in the making for a decade, and there is no certainty that it will proceed as planned. But from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed at least 1.4 million Cambodians, and it is, of course, far better for justice to arrive at these killing fields decades late than never.

At the same time, international eagerness for these trials has led to questionable compromises, including having more Cambodian judges than international ones on the tribunals (contrary to use of only international judges in other such trials elsewhere). The Cambodian judiciary is widely considered corrupt - and bent to the will of the country's increasingly authoritarian leader of more than two decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge leader.

In the end, the climate of fear in Cambodia under Hun Sen may prove to be the biggest problem for the effort to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice. The United States has not contributed to the more than $50 million raised to fund the trials because of Hun Sen's continuing human rights abuses. Over the last several months, a pronounced crackdown by his government produced arrests of almost a dozen Cambodian activists, journalists and politicians.

But - however right in principle - the U.S. stance could lead to a missed opportunity to exert influence on the Khmer Rouge trials. Yesterday, for example, Hun Sen said he would drop criminal defamation lawsuits against five human-rights activists - a move attributed in part to recent U.S. pressure.

Many Cambodians are too young to have first-hand knowledge of the heinous atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. But the nation, with international help, has meticulously documented and openly discussed its genocidal history for years now. Greater U.S. involvement in these trials would be preferable, but, in any case, it is way past time for justice to arrive.

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