Justice and Reconciliation slipping away in the trial of the Khmer Rouge

On 7 July 2015 International Co-Investigating Judge Mark Harmon became the fourth international judge to resign from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia. The Tribunal is investigating the role played by former Khmer Rouge officials in systematic violations of international law, including genocide and crimes against humanity. Here, Lewis Wotherspoon discusses the continued failures to bring members of the Khmer Rouge to justice.

In a statement Mr Harmon stressed that his reasons for stepping down were “strictly personal” but in a case dogged by corruption and cries of foul play this assertion cannot be taken at face value. Indeed local police have recently refused to act on an arrest warrant issued by Harmon against suspect Meas Muth charged with crimes against humanity.

©533338296/Creative Commons License

©533338296/Creative Commons License

Once upon a time the war crimes tribunal in Cambodia was compared loftily to the Nuremburg Trials of the Nazi top brass, but today, 9 years and a mere 3 convictions later the UN backed court has descended into farce. The Cambodian Government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge recruit is keen to silence the trials as he fears Cambodia would descend into anarchy.

Hun Sen is perhaps genuinely keen to avoid the opening up of old wounds but many have noted it is the fear that many within Hun Sen’s who previously belonged to the Khmer Rouge could be implicated in proceeding. It is worth noting that Mr Hun Sen, who has been in power for 27 years has previously issued apocalyptic warnings that if he were to die or be beaten at the ballot box (a fate not likely) the country would be plunged into a bloody civil war.

Despite Hun Sen’s stark warnings the real Cambodian Civil War occurred between 1967 and 1975 and brought to power the genocidal government of Pol Pot, which went on to kill a quarter of the country through a policy of displacement, starvation, torture and execution.

The tragedy of the current court debacle is that there is widespread domestic appetite for substantive trials to take place and an international guarantor in the form of the UN ready and willing to assist in the deliverance of justice.

In South Africa, after the fall of apartheid the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up to shine a light into the horrors of white minority rule. Victims were able to give harrowing testimonies of the violence and discrimination meted out and had the opportunity to address the perpetrators in person. Despite the TRC failing to properly recompense victims and victim’s families it was still generally seen as a positive step towards national forgiveness.

Again, after the genocide in Rwanda where between 500,000-1,000,000 were killed in just 100 days with machetes and garden tools, there was a process of popular justice and reconciliation. Like South Africa the Rwandan process has not inflamed grievances but rather eroded them. Although like in South Africa there has also been a distinctive lack of financial compensation and restitution.

©H. Michael Karshis/Creative Commons License

©H. Michael Karshis/Creative Commons License

What is clear is that a legal process where justice is seen to be done can have a role in healing societal division. That’s not to say it is a solution in itself- justice in the courts should work in conjunction with a policy which ensures economic justice as well. It is the economic aspect which the newly democratic South Africa failed to address and as such there has been no land redistribution and many of the systematised advantages that whites enjoyed under apartheid remain to this day. This is not an argument for a “pact of forgetting” policy as pursued by Spain and advocated by the Cambodian regime but rather a blueprint for the construction of a better resolution.

The problem in Cambodia is that, Sen’s government which is littered with former Khmer officials, would be happy to see the UN pack up and leave. In the negotiations which set up the court Kofni Annan, then General Secretary of the UN pushed for an international court free from the interferences of Cambodian politicians. The compromise was a hybrid court- composed of both international and Cambodia judges.  This has left the Cambodian Government with the  free reign to pressure and influence proceedings.

Despite the international community’s relative inability to guide the proceedings without infringing on Cambodia’s sovereignty we can still ensure the state’s financial reparations program is fully funded. Reparations are of course not just about financial payments and a recent announcement by the government which commits it to a national commemoration day and the inclusion of Khmer Rouge atrocities in the education curriculum is of course to be welcomed.

The defendants on trial in Cambodia are now all well into their 80’s and suffering from ill-health. One has recently died and another, Leng Thirith was declared unfit to stand trial due to Alzheimer’s disease. Time is of the essence and if there is not a renewed international effort to pressure the Cambodian Government as well as commit to further reparations funding, the Cambodian people, almost all of whom were affected personally by the killings, will lose their shot at justice.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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