Why the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is necessary, despite criticism

Davey Meelker

The tribunal that is bringing the former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice is subject to a lot of criticism. It needs many millions of dollars more than originally budgeted, but donor countries hesitated to cough up more bucks in the past and will do the same in future when there is no significant improvement. Although much of the criticism makes sense, it is of huge importance that the tribunal will continue. Even if it means that is not done by internationally accepted standards.

The troubles with the tribunal started before it was established. The Cambodians had reason to distrust the international community, since they didn’t lift a finger to remove the Khmer Rouge while they were in power. On the contrary, the Khmer Rouge had a seat in the UN until 1990. Even though they had already been driven into the jungle by the Vietnamese in 1979. Now it is this same UN that is pushing for a trial. After years of fierce negotiation and mutual distrust, the UN and the Cambodians finally agreed about the framework of the court. Years later the court was established.

The establishment of the court was clearly a compromise, which is noticeable till the day of today. For example, one disagreement  was the number of people who should be brought to justice. Cambodia wanted only the senior leaders, but the UN wanted a broader group of perpetrators. The parties concluded that they would try only senior leaders and others most responsible for serious violations. We now know that everybody had, and still has, his or her own interpretation of the agreement.

The negotiations resulted in a division of power between who should decide to investigate new suspects. This led to a lot of tensions. In November 2011 international judge Siegfried Blunk resigned, because he stressed that government officials interfered with the court. His successor Kasper-Ansermet resigned last month, because he was obstructed by the Cambodians to investigate new suspects to bring them to trial.

There are more stories of Cambodian officials obstructing the investigations of others suspects. Maybe the current prime minister Hun Sen, who was part of the Khmer Rouge before he fled to Vietnam, is worried about his own position. Or even prince Sihanouk who was the symbolic head of state during the Khmer Regime can be investigated for this reason. Who knows? And this uncertainty is exactly what the Cambodian government doesn’t like.

Then there are the allegations of corruption. Both the international side and the Cambodian side can appoint their own staff. Research showed that the staff members from the Cambodian staff lacked quality. It is made clear that they were not selected by merit, but through family or friendship ties or as a part of deals. Staff members confessed that they had to give a part of the salaries to their superiors. Also judges and prosecutors are accused to contribute 30% of their salary to officials of the ruling political party in exchange for their positions at the tribunal. Furthermore, national judges and prosecutors, which are the majority (this was also a compromise made by the UN), are criticized about their quality and independence.

Many people rightfully criticized the ECCC, but this does not mean it was a mistake to establish it. Despite all the flaws it is of great importance that the perpetrators of the genocide are facing justice. It can help survivors to find peace with the past.

By establishing a tribunal the suffering of the survivors is acknowledged. Furthermore, it is likely that survivors find more peace when those most responsible for their suffering are held accountable. An extensive research, where many survivors were interviewed, concluded that many survivors believe that through justice the tribunal is promoting peace and reconciliation. For example one respondent stated: “Cambodia was a broken society with protracted internal conflict for many years. The main causal factor was injustice in society. Therefore, justice at ECCC must be done for the victims if longer-term reconciliation is to be achieved.”

The tribunal will help psychological wounds to heal. One survivor stressed for example: “I lost my father and two siblings. Before the trial, I was overcome by anger at the Khmer Rouges. With the tribunal, I can take breath of relief now.” A survivor of the main prison of the Khmer Rouge, S-21, said at the trial against the leader of the prison: “I could never forget the suffering that I received at S-21, …. [but if] justice can be done by Your Honors, then I would feel better.”

The tribunal further produces explanations and apologies. The leader of S-21 repeatedly apologised for what happened. Nevertheless, most survivors were not impressed and found it too little too late. However, the tribunal helps to achieve a greater understanding of what happened at that time. A lot is still unknown and by letting people and experts witness and by hearing out the perpetrators, a greater understanding can be found. This can help, if proper researched and communicated to the population, the reconciliation process and can help prevent this from even happening again.

Thus, there is much reason to criticize the ECCC and a lot of improvement would do it good. Despite all its flaws I’m still happy that this court exists. Therefore,  I hope that the international community will keep financing the tribunal till the bitter end.

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2 responses to “Why the Khmer Rouge Tribunal is necessary, despite criticism”

  1. Khmer music says :

    I think the international Khmer Rouge tribunal is a farce at best. There is no way that trying five surviving members of the Khmer Rouge leadership will bring either justice or closure to the millions of innocent victims who have perished or are still reeling from their genocidal rule. I think the focus should be on education and raising awareness so that similar atrocities do not happen again.

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