Justice Delayed

Cambodia finally establishes war crimes tribunal, but few have high hopes.

Bill Myers

Although the United Nations and Cambodia have finally come to terms on an agreement to try the aging leaders of the Khmer Rouge, there’s still a long way to go before the country will see justice.

After six years of back and forth, on-again, off-again negotiations, the United Nations and Cambodia signed a deal June 6 to set up a special court, made up of Cambodian and international jurists, to try those “most responsible” for the Khmer Rouge genocide between 1975 and 1979.

While most observers said the signing was a step forward, there is still a long road ahead. Cambodia’s corrupt government, in the midst of national elections, must ratify the deal. And then a U.N. team must fly to Cambodia and work out the logistics, including costs.

Donor countries like France and Japan have pledged enough money to run the tribunals for two years, but “pledges are different than cash in hand,” says U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq.

The United States, which brokered the original, mixed-tribunal formula in the first place, now says it won’t fund the tribunal. That’s thanks to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who put a rider onto a 2002 appropriations bill which forbids the United States from funding the tribunal unless President Bush demands it.

McConnell has strange friends in this. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have blasted the tribunal agreement. Critics don’t believe that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge foot soldier, has the political will to try the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Furthermore, critics say, Cambodia can’t field enough competent—or even honest—judges to sit on the panel. To make matters worse, two of Cambodia’s most prominent judges were assassinated earlier this year. “The system is broken,” says one congressional staff member in Washington who has followed Cambodian affairs.

Few involved in the process are thrilled with the agreement, but proponents say that it’s still better than nothing. “What happens at the tribunal goes far beyond legal issues, in terms of national reconciliation,” says Craig Etcheson, a scholar and one of the foremost experts on the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into a Maoist labor camp from 1975 to 1979. Estimates say that between 1.7 million and 2.2 million died in the “killing fields.”

In the years since the United Nations and Cambodia first began negotiating for the tribunal, two Khmer Rouge leaders, including founder Pol Pot, have died. Most of the rest are in their seventies. Only two are even in custody; the rest live freely in the countryside. Until recently, in fact, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary—the Khmer Rouge’s “Brother No. 3”—traveled on a diplomatic passport.

There is also the stench of American hypocrisy surrounding the tribunal. While there is no question the Cambodian genocide was one of the greatest human-rights breakdowns of the last bloody century, Cambodia was at war for 30 years. Critics have pointed out that the narrow scope of the tribunal—focusing only on “the worst offenses” during a four-year period—gives a free pass to the United States (and specifically, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger) for dragging Cambodia into the Vietnam War in the ’70s, killing hundreds of thousands and giving rise to the Khmer Rouge regime. The United States and China also supported the Khmer Rouge after the country fell to Vietnam in 1979, sending it money and arms and convincing the United Nations to give Cambodia’s seat in the world body to the Khmer Rouge, a position it maintained until the ’90s.

Furthermore, the question remains: What to do with the regime’s lower-level killers? Many, even among its supporters, fear the tribunal could do more harm than good. “It seems to me that when this tribunal happens,” Etcheson says, “and only a handful of senior cadre are prosecuted, you are going to have a lot of people wondering why their own personal ‘Pol Pot’ is not getting any of this so-called justice.”

For a direct lesson on the hazards of mixed tribunals, take a look at the June 4 indictment of Liberia’s thug-in-chief, Charles Taylor. A U.N.-supported mixed panel conducting trials for Sierra Leone’s civil war indicted Taylor for “bearing the greatest responsibility” for the mayhem in Sierra Leone by arming the death squads there. The indictment was unsealed as Taylor was in Ghana trying to work out a deal with his own country’s rebels, in talks co-sponsored by the United Nations.

Taylor has since fled back to Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, and picked up where he left off. In mid-June, rebels had overtaken the city, attacking and wounding hundreds of civilians.

Maybe it’s an extreme example, but no one in Cambodia—or Iraq or Afghanistan, for that matter—can afford to ignore it. Says one U.N. official: “In general, there’s always going to be a tension between the cause of justice and the cause of peace.”

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.