Global Policy Forum

Khmer Rouge Tribunal a Race Against Time


By Samantha Brown

Agence France Presse
April 14, 2005

Funding for a UN-backed international tribunal to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders is almost secured, but as the clock ticks likely defendants are ageing while many question the court's form and utility. It has taken decades to reach this point in setting up a trial for the henchmen of Pol Pot, whose ultra-Maoist regime seized power 30 years ago this Sunday and launched a totalitarian rule that oversaw the deaths of up to two million.

Pol Pot himself died in 1998, eluding justice, while only two of the six or so former leaders expected to appear in the dock are in jail, with the remainder living freely in Cambodia. "I would hope that the prosecution starts this year," Helen Jarvis, a top adviser to the government task force preparing the trials, told AFP.

"As for the trial, I wouldn't expect that it would start this year—it's more likely to be next year. There'll be at least six to 12 months of investigations," she said. Since a March appeal by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, donor nations have pledged nearly 39 million dollars towards the three-year trial, about four million short of the UN's portion of the 56-million-dollar budget.

Cambodia, which is destitute after nearly three decades of conflict that ended seven years ago, is to fund the remaining 13 million dollars for the tribunal and has appealed for donor assistance. Jarvis said she was confident both targets would be met soon. "Certainly it's the last major obstacle," she said.

The UN and Cambodia's 2003 agreement on the tribunal after more than six years of often acrimonious negotiations drew strong criticism from human rights groups and some countries. They charge that the so-called mixed tribunal, which requires one international judge to agree with a Cambodian majority to secure a conviction, is too open to political influence on the notoriously corrupt local judiciary.

"Some of us are very doubtful whether international judges could persuade their Cambodian counterparts to follow international procedures," said political analyst Lao Mong Hay, who has lobbied for a tribunal for years. "And the international judges may be corrupted by our own system." Some top government officials, despite their official stance, are privately reluctant about the process, fearing revelations about their own pasts.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the United States—which refuses to contribute to the tribunal—are also uneasy after recognising the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia's legitimate government despite its ousting. The United States supplied arms to the Khmer Rouge after its defeat by Vietnamese troops and, amid Cold War politics, supported its keeping a seat at the United Nations despite knowing about the atrocities.

Francois Ponchaud, a Roman Catholic priest who was in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot seized power and in 1977 first revealed that genocide was underway, said a trial excluding the United States would be a "farce". "If we want to have a fair trial we would need to sentence all the actors of that drama, including the United States," he said. China is also wary because of its supportive role both during Pol Pot's rule and in financing the movement after its defeat.

Revered former king Norodom Sihanouk, who allied with the Khmer Rouge after being deposed in a 1970 coup, has decried the tribunal as farcical. "I myself joined the Khmer Rouge because Sihanouk appealed... There should be a tribunal, but please, not limited from 1975 to 1979," said San Roeun, an ex-Khmer Rouge soldier in Anlong Veng, the movement's final stronghold.

Chea Vannath, president of the Centre for Social Development, which conducted surveys in 2002 finding most Cambodians want some kind of tribunal, said a trial should be regarded as only one part of reconciliation. She complained that Cambodians are too far removed from the current process."I feel that it's too clinical. It's just high politicians, high leaders that are involved," she told AFP. "It's like inviting people to go to a ceremony. You invite them as part of the organisers, or you ask them as a guest... Here they are not even the guests of the ceremony, they are far, remote observers."

But for Youk Chhang, who heads a centre compiling evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities, the grumblings are moot. "Even if the word justice is defined in different ways, from human rights groups to the government, for the victims... I think the issue is how do we move on. The tribunal, to me, is the last solution to Cambodia's genocide."

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