Global Policy Forum

No Redemption - The Failing Khmer Rouge Trial


By Allan Yang

Harvard International Review

Three decades after planning the genocide of 1.7 million Cambodians, the remaining leaders of the infamous Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia are finally being brought to justice. Between July and November 2007, the five most prominent living former leaders of the radical communist group were arrested in anticipation of their appearance in an official tribunal, which is receiving backing from the United Nations and the international community. However, with the Cambodian government seemingly uneager to bring these ex-leaders to justice, the trials may only stir up bitter memories and expose the Cambodian government's flaws.

The Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, after the previous government's involvement in the Vietnam War led to its collapse. The group immediately initiated radical changes, such as forcing city dwellers to march miles to agricultural collectives, eliminating money, disestablishing schools, and arresting intellectuals. Thousands of Cambodians were held in prisons and tortured until they confessed to crimes they did not commit. Pol Pot, the charismatic but secretive leader of the Khmer Rouge, oversaw the slaughter of at least 1.7 million people in the span of less than four years. This genocide was largely unknown in the Western hemisphere until many years later.

The Vietnamese occupation of Phnom Penh in 1978 shook the Khmer Rouge from power, beginning the regime's long period of decline. By 1989, the Vietnamese withdrew, and the United Nations stepped in to help establish a new government. Despite the clear majority of votes in the elections of 1993 for the royalist political faction, the present Prime Minister Hun Sen ultimately came to power as the leader of a coalition government. There was little influence from the Khmer Rouge in any of these developments, as the group was largely dissolved by the mid-1990s. It finally surrendered completely in 1999.

After the formation of the new government, most of the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge were either granted official pardons or left alone. Pol Pot, the mastermind and "brother number one" of the Khmer Rouge, was put under a lifetime house arrest imposed by the remaining fragments of the Khmer Rouge after an internal power struggle. He died in 1998 of natural causes. Currently on trial are prominent leaders such as Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea, "brother number three" Ieng Sary, his wife the social affairs minister Ieng Thirith, and infamous prison leader Kang Kek Ieu, also known as Duch. All are over 60 years old; some are nearing 80. Most were only arrested in late 2007.

In 1997, the United States and United Nations began calling for the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders after Prime Minister Sen welcomed two such leaders in their return to Cambodia. Although Sen initially opposed such an international tribunal, claiming it would only cause more division in Cambodia, he eventually requested aid from the United Nations to set up official tribunals for the leaders of the Khmer Rouge when international pressures did not cease. Sen also insisted that other crimes against humanity in Cambodia be investigated, especially the US' carpet-bombing in the country during the Vietnam War. Although these additional requests were rejected by the United Nations, Sen's approval launched the process to set up the tribunal.

In 2000, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stopped the establishment negotiations, accusing the Cambodian government of not keeping up its end of the negotiations. Talks began again in 2003 after renewed promises from the Cambodian government, and the trials are now set to begin in 2008. The tribunal, with its budget of US$56.3 billion, will officially try the leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity. Five judges will sit on the tribunal, three of whom will be Cambodian. The cases will be decided with a majority vote, and the maximum punishment for a conviction will be life in prison.

The conditions of the tribunal, however, could be the very sources of its failure. Cambodia was originally reluctant to have international judges sit on the tribunal, and it only agreed to having two after some urging from the United Nations. With the majority of the judges being Cambodian, there is a large possibility of bias towards those being tried; many leaders in the current Cambodian government have past ties to the regime. The government may even find supporters of the Khmer Rouge to sit as judges. In addition, the international community was unsuccessful in persuading the government to hold the trials outside of Cambodia. During negotiations, the Cambodian Bar Association wanted to charge exorbitant fees for any foreign lawyers who wished to represent a client on the tribunal. Although this fee was eventually reduced significantly, all of these events showcase Cambodia's unwillingness to let international forces have a strong influence in the proceedings.

Another unfortunate reality of the tribunal is that without the UN's help, Cambodia lacks the money and skilled labor to handle the expensive proceedings. The country was already underdeveloped before the Vietnam era, and the continual wars and political struggles have done little to improve its economy or living conditions in rural areas. At least 70 percent of workers are still involved in agriculture, and 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. To compound these worries, the country faces a demographic crisis resulting from the genocide: over 50 percent of the population is under 21 and the education system is not sufficiently preparing this generation for future economic progress. The only bright spots of the Cambodian economy are the growing number of tourists per year and the new discovery of oil deposits in the country's territories.

Already the recipient of large international donations, Cambodia could be willing to hold the trials in the hopes of receiving funding from the United Nations. Indeed, the government was criticized in October 2007 for hiring unqualified workers and overpaying them. There are also allegations of the government using donated money inefficiently, and in some cases government officials have been suspected of taking money for personal use. The tribunal is already running over its US$56.3 billion budget, and the country has asked for more donations from other countries. The trials could be an economic boon for Cambodia in more than one way: not only do they bring in money for their day-to-day operations, they also attract the benevolence of the international community by acting as a sign of increased attention to human rights.

In addition to these structural flaws, the trial may be occurring too late to bring the former leaders to any sense of true justice. It has been 30 years since the official end of the Khmer Rouge regime. When compared to the Nuremburg Trials, which started within a year of the end of World War II; the tribunal for Rwanda, which was formed the same year as the genocide in the country; and the Yugoslavian trials, which started six years after the end of the Bosnian genocide of 1992-1996, the Khmer Rouge tribunal is coming incredibly late. Those that will be brought to trial are already elderly. The tribunal's only clear-cut outcome, it seems, will be to rouse the bitter memories of those who are old enough to remember suffering under the regime.

Ultimately, the Khmer Rouge trials, while at one point necessary to bring the organizers of a horrific genocide to justice, may turn out to be a case of too little, too late. The trials will come and go, but they will do little to ease Cambodia's existing problems or to allow the country to finally escape the suffering of its past.

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