Monday, October 04, 2004

Justice in Cambodia?

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians--nearly a quarter of the country's population--were killed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. Seven years after Cambodia first requested the assistance of the United Nations in establishing a tribunal to try surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and other crimes against humanity (and over a year after an agreement to create such a court was signed by Cambodian and U.N. representatives), the lower house of Cambodia's parliament ratified the agreement, clearing the way for the tribunal to become a reality.

Although Pol Pot died in 1998 before facing trial, other top Khmer Rouge leaders remain alive and are expected to be tried. They include Khieu Samphan, former head of state, and Ta Mok, a Khmer Rouge military commander. Among the most notorious figures likely to face trial is "Comrade Duch," who ran Tuol Sleng Prison. Duch documented in great detail the "enemies of the state" who were tortured and killed in Tuol Sleng, apparently to prove his effectiveness in his job. Over 5,000 photographs of prisoners who passed through Tuol Sleng are available on-line among the documents collected by the Cambodia Genocide Project at Yale. To view even a fraction of the collection of photographs is staggering.

There are still obstacles to the creation and operation of the tribunal. Cambodia, which agreed to split the estimated $57 million cost of operating the court, says it cannot pay its share. To date, only Australia has contributed toward the portion to be covered by the United Nations. Furthermore, international observers are concerned that the tribunal, which is to include both Cambodian and international judges with a majority of the former, will be too susceptible to Cambodian government influence. Prime Minister Hun Sen has not inspired international confidence in his commitment to justice for surviving Khmer Rouge leaders.

Notwithstanding these problems, the ratification of the tribunal agreement is an important development. As Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said, “Even 25 years after genocide, it is not too late to seek justice and not too late to talk about what happened here.”