The Khmer Rouge Tribunal: was it all worth it?

Photo left: Chinese President Hua Guofeng (right) welcomes Pol Pot (centre) and Ieng Sary to Beijing in 1977. Photo right: Ieng Sary at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Davey Meelker

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.

Killing Fields Genocide Cambodia_Bloggers Without Borders

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?”

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2 responses to “The Khmer Rouge Tribunal: was it all worth it?”

  1. Anonymous says :

    To speak about Khmer Rouge one must understand how it is started. True enough Cambodians or Khmers must not blame anyone else, but themselves. Cambodia is a small country which unfortunately situated right in the middle of Vietnam and Thailand, thus became known as the “buffer zone” between Thailand who is an ally to England and Vietnam who was pro-china, betrayed and found a pro-soviet union.

    Cambodia as a country would be simply characterized as to “an egg caught between a rock and a hard place,” and she was forced to make a choice and the one person responsible to make that decision was King Sihanouk. There is an old saying in Cambodian Proverb,”ជួញជិតជាជាងជួញឆ្ងាយ or Chunh chit chea cheang chunh chhgai.” King Sihanouk seems to follow this path right to the end of his life. With this sort of thinking King Sihanouk prefers to align his policy toward neutrality. Because of this neutrality frame of mind, King Sihanouk plays a two faces card. However, the war in Cambodia was a European Contingency War that shaped by United States, England, France, Russia, China and Vietnam.

    Out of these six countries, five are currently the United Nation Security Council elite members. US and UK, both are Capitalist countries while Russia and China, both are Communist countries and France, the “buffer country.” France insists on controlling Indochina after World War II, but US President recommends that Indochina be placed on International Trusteeship, but this proposal was later rejected.

    Ho Chi Minh took the opportunity to liberate his country from French domination, and Viet Minh was born. The Vietnam War became an American Experience in Indochina. France has failed to capture Vietnam under their wings when France lost the war at Dien Bien Phu. France has requested assistance from England, but Churchill denied the request and so the responsibility came on American shoulders. By this time the US President who was involved in Indochina was dead declining from his sickness and the new American Foreign Policy toward Indochina was changed dramatically.

    Harry S. Truman carries on this harsh policy and determined to take back Indochina from North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh. It is known as Vietnam War. But let us ask this one question as to why Vietnam divided into two countries and placed a 17th Parallel right in between them? To answer this question we must first take a look at how the First Indochina War or known in France as “Dirty War” “la sale guerre” came into picture.

    The First Indochina War began on December 19, 1946 and ended on August 1st, 1954. The first skirmish fighting between France and Viet Minh came about on September 1945. There were several key players or actors on the battlefield: French Union’s, French Far East Expeditionary Corps led by France and supported by Vietnam Emperor Bao Dai, the Vietnamese National Army against the Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap.

    Most of the fighting happened in Tonkin, Northern Vietnam. These conflicts engulfed the entire Vietnam and spilled over to the French Protectorate of Laos and Cambodia. We shall speak about the spillages onto Laos and Cambodia and the American Experience in Vietnam and its Carpet Bombing on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia and how the Khmer Rouge and King Sihanouk took the opportunity to turn it against Khmer Republics led by General Lon Nol.

    Following the reoccupation of Indochina by the French following the end of World War II, the area having fallen to the Japanese, the Việt Minh launched a rebellion against the French authority governing the colonies of French Indochina. The first few years of the war involved a low-level rural insurgency against French authority. However, after the Chinese communists reached the Northern border of Vietnam in 1949, the conflict turned into a conventional war between two armies equipped with modern weapons supplied by the United States and the Soviet Union.

    French Union forces included colonial troops from the whole former empire (Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese ethnic minorities), French professional troops and units of the French Foreign Legion. The use of metropolitan recruits was forbidden by the governments to prevent the war from becoming even more unpopular at home. It was called the “dirty war” (la sale guerre) by supporters of the Left intellectuals in France (including Jean-Paul Sartre) during the Henri Martin Affair in 1950.

    While the strategy of pushing the Việt Minh into attacking a well defended base in a remote part of the country at the end of their logistical trail was validated at the Battle of Na San, the lack of construction materials (especially concrete), tanks (because of lack of road access and difficulty in the jungle terrain), and air cover precluded an effective defense, culminating in a decisive French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

    After the war, the Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954, made a provisional division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with control of the north given to the Việt Minh as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under Hồ Chí Minh, and the south becoming the State of Vietnam under Emperor Bảo Đại, in order to prevent Hồ Chí Minh from gaining control of the entire country. A year later, Bảo Đại would be deposed by his prime minister, Ngô Đình Diệm, creating the Republic of Vietnam. The failure to hold reunification elections in 1956 would eventually lead to war breaking out again in South Vietnam in 1959, this time with US intervention – the Vietnam War.

    Khmer Ghandi

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