Worldview Commentary No. 294 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

Author: Susan Good

“Justice for Cambodia’s Killing Fields?”

Too little, too late, too suspect – but better than nothing, perhaps: the first of five planned trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders is set to begin next week in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.

If ever crimes cried out for justice, the Killing Fields of Cambodia are near the top of the list. During a four-year reign of terror three decades ago, Khmer Rouge lunacy led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people — one fifth of Cambodia’s entire population. Two hundred thousand victims were executed. The rest died from starvation and disease.

Now, more than 30 years after the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979, a handful of trials may finally take place. They will come too late to try the regime’s lunatic in chief, Pol Pot, who died (or was poisoned) in 1998.

The trials will also be too few. Next week the 65-year-old former warden of the Tuol Sleng torture center, a man known as Duch, goes on trial. As yet there are only four other defendants: the regime’s former head of state, its ministers of foreign and social affairs, and its chief ideologue. They may go on trial beginning next year — if these ailing senior citizens live that long.

Their demise before trial would apparently not displease Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge official (but not one of their top leaders). Last month, six more names were submitted for possible prosecution by the Canadian co-prosecutor of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, the mixed Cambodian and international tribunal set up by agreement between Hun Sen and the United Nations.

The proposal was rejected, however, by the Cambodian co-prosecutor. No doubt reflecting the views of her boss, Hun Sen, she objected that the court was intended to try only a small number of suspects. Earlier Hun Sen had said about 4-5 trials would be enough.

The disagreement between the two co-prosecutors now awaits a ruling by the court’s pretrial chamber.

But the court itself is under a cloud. In the first place, Cambodian judges, who notoriously lack independence from Hun Sen, are a majority on the court’s trial, pretrial and appeals chambers. Although the UN extracted a concession requiring at least one international judge to join in any verdict, the international judges by themselves cannot convict anyone.

There are also troubling allegations of corruption. Last month international lawyers filed a formal complaint charging the Cambodian deputy prime minister in charge of the court with taking a portion of the Cambodian judges’ salaries as a kickback. The charge was promptly thrown out by another Cambodian court.

All this in a court whose total budget has now reached $135 million, funded mainly by Japan, Germany, Britain and France.

Still, unless the verdicts are corrupted, even a little justice in these cases may be better than none. Torture master Duch presided over a center where 300 prisoners were allegedly slaughtered each evening. When the Vietnamese reached the prison in 1979, they took videos showing decapitated prisoners chained to their beds. According to one witness, children were literally thrown to the crocodiles.

In addition to surviving family members, Cambodians generally may learn something about their history from the trials. Two thirds of Cambodia’s population was born after 1979. A recent poll taken by the Human Rights Center of the University of California at Berkeley reports that among this group, four out of five claim only a poor or very poor knowledge of the Khmer Rouge years.

Asked whether the aging Khmer Rouge leaders should be put on trial, about half the Cambodians surveyed said yes. But one third believe the court is not neutral and one quarter believe it is corrupt.

There are no simple routes to justice for crimes against humanity. National trials are rarely conducted, the International Criminal Court has limited capacity and, as the Cambodian experience shows, mixed national and international tribunals have their pitfalls.

The claim made for mixed tribunals conducting trials in the country where the crimes took place is that they are better at teaching the citizenry about the crimes, and that they may help to build the local legal culture and infrastructure. But they can also backfire. The jury is still out on the UN’s experiment in Cambodia.

Doug Cassel’s commentaries are generally broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM, and rebroadcast at 9 PM in the evening. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.