The Khmer Rouge Tribunal: was it all worth it?
Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, died today while he was standing trial for being one of the leaders of the regime responsible for killing around 2 million people. This is another setback for the tribunal that only convicted one person since it became operational in 2007. Ieng Sary’s wife, Ieng Thirith, who was also standing trial was released earlier because of her Alzheimer’s desease. Now, there are only two suspects left. Many blame the tribunal as unprofessional, corrupt and inefficient. Is the tribunal turning out to be a fiasco?
Earlier I claimed that the trials are necessary despite criticism, but as time is passing by it seems that trials are too little too late. It was proposed in 1998 that the UN Security Council should create an International Criminal Tribunal for Cambodia in The Hague covering the crimes committed in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. Cambodian officials tried to discourage this formation. Many of them were somehow involved in the Khmer Rouge and feared persecution. Also, it was the same UN that saw the Khmer Rouge as the legal representatives of Cambodia till 1990 (while the Khmer Rouge were isolated in the Cambodian jungle from 1979), and thus many Cambodians distrusted the international community. What followed were very long negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government over the establishment of a tribunal.
The negations were long and frustrating. It became clear that the only option was a tribunal that incorporated both international law and Cambodian law. Also the staff, judges, lawyers, prosecutors etc. should be both international and Cambodian. The problem was how to divide this and who should be prosecuted. The tensions reached its highest level in 2002 when the UN abandoned the negotiations. Many human rights organisation supported this move, since they were afraid that corruption and political influence would plague the trials if the UN would agree with the Cambodian demands. Nevertheless, the UN were back at the negotiation table in 2003 and finally an agreement was reached. In 2007, almost 30 years after the Khmer Rouge was removed from power, the tribunal became operational.
The establishment of the court was clearly a compromise, which is noticeable till the day of today. For example, the international delegation doesn’t agree with the Cambodian representatives on the number of people who should be brought to justice. Cambodia wanted to try the senior leaders, but the UN wanted a broader group of perpetrators. The parties concluded in the negotiations 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.
Many involved complain of governmental interference and corruption. In November 2011 international judge Siegfried Blunk resigned, because he stressed that government officials interfered with the court. His successor Kasper-Ansermet resigned a few months later, because he was obstructed by the Cambodians to investigate new suspects. Less than a year later lawyers Pestman and Pauw resigned and called the trials “a farce” and “controlled by the Cambodian government.”
Then there are also allegations of fraud with the selection of many Cambodian staff members and their payments. And to make things worse, now the tribunal is running out of money. A few days ago even a strike broke over unpaid wages of staff members. The tribunal has cost around 180 million dollars so far.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think this tribunal is not a complete mistake. Finally, the suffering of many Cambodians is acknowledged and it can help victims to find peace with the past. We get more understanding of what happened and justice can be done.
Still, it has been almost 35 years since the Khmer Rouge was removed from power and fifteen years since the matter was discussed in the Security Council for the first time. It brought only one conviction so far. From the five persons who were standing trial two will be not convicted by the severely criticized tribunal. It would be no surprise if also the other two aged perpetrators (Nuon Chea is 86 years olds and Khieu Samphan is 81 years old) die before being brought to justice. Then we should ask ourselves the question: “was it all worth it?”