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March 15, 2002
Dust and Bones
War crimes tribunal for Cambodia proves elusive.
Cambodian's marching with Vietnamese
Many Cambodians seek a military tribunal for the war crimes of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, seen here shortly after capture by Vietnamese troops in 1979.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia—As a boy, Phann Ana found the bodies of his uncle and father where the Khmer Rouge had left them: under a compost pile near his family’s home. “The bodies were badly decomposed—just bones, really,” says Phann Ana, a 32-year-old writer. “But my mother recognized my father by his pants, and my aunt recognized my uncle by his lighter.”

The family scooped up the mounds of splintered bones and tattered rags and cremated them. In their Buddhist faith, the ceremony, long delayed, brought spiritual peace. But it did not bring justice. Phann Ana—and millions of Cambodians—are still waiting for that. “It will not happen,” he says of efforts to bring the Khmer Rouge leadership to trial. “I don’t think so.”

The long-promised tribunal to try those responsible for one of the 20th century’s worst human rights disasters now seems as far away as ever.

The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into its private labor camp in 1975. For nearly four years, the “Angka”—the organization—played out its anti-modern, xenophobic, utopian ideals on Cambodian people. An estimated 1.7 million died from overwork, disease, starvation or execution.

Since 1997, efforts to create a tribunal to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice have stalled as Cambodia slipped back into civil war or quarreled with the United Nations over sovereignty and the selection of defendants.

In the meantime, all but one of the remaining Khmer Rouge leadership lives, in the words of Peter Leuprecht, the top U.N. human rights official, “peacefully and prosperously” in the Cambodian countryside.

It is a long way from last August, when both sides were finally ready to start negotiations and convene an unprecedented tribunal of Cambodian and international judges to prosecute those “most responsible” for the “most serious” atrocities in the Khmer Rouge era. Back then, even skeptics like Phann Ana were allowing words like “when” to replace “if” in their vocabulary. Now, even as the United States and other countries pressure the United Nations to come back to the negotiating table, only recriminations remain. “It’s clear it was never a priority for either side,” says Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

Youk Chhang, a Cambodian-American who lost most of his family to the Khmer Rouge and now gathers evidence against them, is trying—like many—to remain constructive. “Now both sides have to make it their first priority,” he says.

Each side has claimed they are still open to renegotiation. For now, Leuprecht (who is not involved in the negotiations) said at a March 8 news conference, “I do encourage both sides to walk through the open door.”

That is going to be tough. The United Nations pulled out of negotiations with Cambodia on February 8, saying its government could not guarantee a fair trial. Within days of the announcement, Ke Pauk, a former Khmer Rouge zone commander believed to be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, died. Left without any time frame for negotiations, Cambodian officials in late February entered new charges against Ta Mok, the one-legged former Khmer Rouge zone commander known as “The Butcher,” to prevent his pretrial detention term from expiring.

Distrust between the United Nations and Cambodia runs deep. After the Vietnamese helped topple the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the world body, under U.S. pressure, refused to recognize the Vietnamese-installed government and instead gave Cambodia’s seat to the Khmer Rouge.

U.N. workers who flocked to Cambodia in the early ’90s flooded the country with cash, soldiers, doctors, lawyers and teachers, but also helped nurture its brothels and sky-high AIDS rate. And some officials of the many U.N. agencies here in Phnom Penh have embarrassed the organization. One human rights chief had to be fired after she suggested Cambodians were biologically prone to violence.

Even physically, the challenge of getting the tribunal back on track is enormous. The U.N. legal team, which had long accused the Cambodians of stalling, did not even come to the country to begin its negotiations. That rankled many observers. “The fault lies with the U.N.,” one Western diplomat says. “The U.N. were invited to come, and they didn’t come.”

Whatever the outcome, a lesson has been driven home to many Cambodians. “The courts do not belong to the people,” Phann Ana says. “There is no justice.”


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