After 3 Decades, Tribunal Last Chance To Try the Khmer Rouge
Monday, April 17, 2006
Thirty-one years ago this week, a peasant army clad in the black of the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and quickly emptied Cambodia’s capital of human life. This is Year Zero,” Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot declared as
Over the next three and a half years, as many as two million people – nearly a third of
In 1984, we visited the Khmer Rouge, by then a guerrilla force opposing the government installed by
As night fell on the first day of our visit, a group of Khmer Rouge leaders suddenly materialized out of the jungle. They included Pol Pot’s brother-in-law, Ieng Sary, and his wife, Ieng Thirith. Pol Pot did not come – he was busy, Sary explained, leading his forces in battle.
Thus began the most surreal evening of our lives. Our hosts served up imported shrimp, champagne and other delicacies under a bright lightbulb – the only sign of electricity we could see. Insects crowed into the glasses of champagne.
How do you broach the subject of mass murder when your hosts, responsible for crimes of mind-numbing magnitude, offer a sumptuous feast at the outer edges of the earth?
In response to our questions, Ieng Sary acknowledged that the Khmer Rouge “owe the world an accounting” for what he termed “the unfortunate events of the 1970s.” “But as you know,” he continued, “Pol Pot is very busy right now fighting a war.” The accounting would have to wait.
More than three decades after the fall of
Negotiations between the Cambodian government and the UN to establish a special tribunal to prosecute Khmer Rouge atrocities, triggered by a Cambodian request in 1997, have been agonizingly slow. At last, however, the court is becoming a reality.
In February, the deputy director of the court’s administrative office, a UN appointee, arrived in
Las month, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan submitted a list of international judges to serve on the court – formally the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea.
Every Nuremberg-type tribunal is fraught with challenges and risks, and significant perils are woven into the very fabric of this one. Unlike international courts operating in
Given well-founded concerns about the susceptibility of Cambodian judges to political interference by
While aware of the perils, supporters of the process, including the UN, argue that it is the last chance to deliver some measure of justice to survivors of
The fact is that Khmer Rouge leaders are aging and dying. Pol Pot and another prime suspect,
The experiences of other recent war crimes courts offer other lessons as well. They have shown that the way survivors perceive the proceedings is powerfully affected by their treatment as witnesses. Donors should ensure that adequate funds are devoted to supporting and protecting witnesses. The judges, prosecutors and defense counsel should receive intensive training in both international and Cambodian law and procedure to ensure effective trial proceedings. The tribunal should also ensure that the public is informed about their work, and should be aware of how Cambodians perceive the tribunal.
While these concerns are common to all such tribunals, the
Foreign donors who support the tribunal must carefully monitor the proceedings and should establish an institutionalized process for doing so.
The donors should also provide significant support for empowering Cambodian civic groups to monitor and engage with the tribunal.
Even if the process is flawed – sadly a virtual certainty – it can serve as a vehicle for further enhancing the skills and influence of
This itself would be an invaluable legacy of trials that are long past due for the aging survivors of
(Floyd Abrams, author of “Speaking Freely: Trials of the First Amendment,” and Diane Orentlicher, a director of the Opens Society Justice Initiative, visited Cambodia on behalf of the Lawyers Committee for Human Right, now Human Rights First, in 1984. This article originally appeared in the International Herald Tribune.)