Global Policy Forum

For Cambodia’s Dead, Farce Heaped on Insult


By Roger Cohen

International Herald Tribune
April 2, 2005

The world's attention is elsewhere, but the farce surrounding the planned United Nations-backed tribunal to judge crimes by the Khmer Rouge that led to the deaths of more than 1.5 million Cambodians has become sufficiently grotesque to merit some consideration in Washington and other capitals. On April 17, Cambodia will mark the 30th anniversary of the day communist Khmer Rouge forces "liberated" Phnom Penh and - tearing up the national currency, emptying the capital - embarked on a murderous experiment in utopian social engineering that would leave about one fifth of the nation dead and the rest traumatized in ways that still haunt this country.

Pol Pot, the placid-faced Khmer Rouge leader, and a number of his chief lieutenants have died. But many of those responsible are alive, if aging. Their crimes were recently described by Secretary General Kofi Annan as "of a character and scale that is still almost impossible to comprehend." If such acts merit neither judgment nor punishment, the world has learned little from the horrors of the past century.

Every Cambodian has a relative, close or distant, who died during the four-year Khmer Rouge rampage. Behind the smiles Cambodians offer so readily lurks an ineffable pain. "The cut runs deep," said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which leads research into the killing. "We become either silent or violent."

The protracted international push to hold a trial has been rooted in the conviction that only such proceedings would allow Cambodia to reach "closure" and move forward. The initiative is not backed by all Cambodians, most of whom are now under 20, have no direct recollection of Pol Pot, wonder if the money might be better spent on irrigation or drinking water and fear renewed violence. But many do clamor for justice. Whatever their sentiments, the fact is that the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the international community have made a commitment, now long-standing, to form a tribunal to try those "most responsible" for the crimes committed from April 17, 1975, to the end of the regime on Jan. 6, 1979.

To say that all those concerned are dithering would be an understatement. To say that their quibbles about financing have become an insult to the dead would be to state things mildly. To wonder whether the political will to hold the trial exists in Cambodia and other countries, including China, that might be troubled by its findings is now unavoidable. The great vanishing tribunal has become a global embarrassment. But attention is fickle these days and, with the cold war over, 1.5 million dead Cambodians do not figure too often on the radar screens that matter. So here are a few facts to refresh everyone's memory.

More than four years ago, on Jan. 2, 2001, the National Assembly here adopted a law establishing "extraordinary chambers in the courts of Cambodia" for the trial. On May 13, 2003, the United Nations adopted a resolution (number 57/228B) containing an accord on conditions for the tribunal, including the composition of the judges (Cambodian and international), punishment (maximum of life imprisonment), duration (three years) and financing (mainly international).

The latter issue, money, has proved the most immediately contentious - as well as providing a convenient pretext for those with little interest in a trial. A few days ago, March 28, the member states finally pledged $38.48 million for the trial, $4.52 million short of the $43 million goal. So, in theory, the tribunal for the largest mass murder since the Nazis is being held up by a missing four million bucks.

There is a further twist. Cambodia, which is poor, is supposed to provide an additional $13.3 million. It recently indicated, however, that it may be able to pay only $1.5 million. Whether that is merely a bargaining position or something more is unclear. As a very young man, Hun Sen, the prime minister, was a member of the Khmer Rouge. Does he really want a trial? "I think when the prime minister says he'd like to see a tribunal, he's sincere," Charles Ray, the U.S. ambassador, said in an interview. "At the same time I know he is also very mindful of the fact that if it's not handled properly, it could overturn the stability they've gained since 1998."

Among the largest pledges made for the tribunal are those from Japan ($21.6 million), France ($4.8 million), Britain ($2.8 million) and Australia ($2.3 million). You will notice a conspicuous absentee from that list: the United States, which in theory backs the tribunal but has pledged not a dime. As Prince Norodom Sirivudh, the deputy prime minister, recently remarked: "Some of the countries which have been urging Cambodia to conduct the Khmer Rouge tribunal have not pledged a single dollar yet. This is very sad."

There is a reason for this lack of American funding. The Foreign Operations Appropriations Act of 2005, passed by Congress, states that: "None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by the Act may be used to provide assistance to any tribunal established by the Government of Cambodia." Such financing may be provided only if the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, determines that "(1) Cambodia's judiciary is competent, independent, free from widespread corruption and its decisions are free from interference by the executive branch; and (2) the proposed tribunal is capable of delivering justice that meets internationally recognized standards, for crimes against humanity and genocide in an impartial and credible manner."

There is a back story to this law, about which more in my next column. But let it be clear: The United States is legally barred from giving any money to a UN-backed tribunal to try the worst single crime since Hitler. I doubt that Rice has had much time to focus on this anomaly. But perhaps she should find time. The accumulation of fudging and evasion that has delayed the trial would be risible if it were not shameful.

More Information on International Justice
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