United Nations Day: Genocide trials in Cambodia

Killing Fields (c. Associated Press)

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To mark United Nations Day tomorrow, Tom Goodenough assesses the UN’s involvement in the trials of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Tom is a freelance journalist currently studying MA Newspaper Journalism at City University.

In a quiet, leafy suburb of theCambodiacapital, Phnom Pehn, the horrors of the past have been well preserved. Tuol Sleng, which became a torture and interrogation centre under the Khmer Rouge, displays rows of photographs showing people of all creeds and ages, united in an inevitably common fate. All but seven of the 17,000 or so inmates of the prison were to lose their lives at the hands of their captors.

Over thirty years on since the Khmer Rouge was swept from power and the Cambodian genocide was broadcast to the world, justice still seems like a distant prospect, however. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia is a unique collaborative court, applying domestic legislation, supplemented with international humanitarian law. Even with the support and assistance of the United Nations, however, the court so far has managed just one conviction, that of Comrade Duch, who ran Tuol Sleng. A second trial involving four senior cadres of the Khmer Rouge, has been, to say the least, fitful since its opening day on June 27th this year.

Before the latest trial even began, it looked predictable that the court would face a harder task than it did in bringing Duch, who pleaded guilty, to justice. This time, all of the defendants: Ieng Sart, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister; his wife, Ieng Thirith, who was social affairs minister; Khieu Samphan, the former head of state; and Nuon Chea, second-in-command only to the leader of the Khmer Rouge himself, Pol Pot, have rejected the charges before them.

Such denials, as anyone with even an outside knowledge of genocide trials will know, present a huge headache to prosecutors. Though complicity in the awful acts carried out under the banner of the K.R. seems unquestionable, if only because of their various positions of seniority in the murderous movement, they can all only be convicted if it is proven that they were linked directly to specific atrocities. In a court of law, even with the evidence provided by an obsessively meticulous regime such as the Khmer Rouge, that may prove to be an insurmountable hurdle.

Aside from such litigious frustrations, political involvement has also marred endeavours for justice. The Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, did much to undermine proceedings by airing his wish that these hearings should probably be the last. Mr Sen, and others who wield power in Cambodia today, suggest that digging up the past has no value in reconciliation or in promoting harmony in a new Cambodia.

If the resignation, on October 8th, of trial judge Siegfried Blunk on grounds that recent statements by the government had made his position virtually untenable, are anything to go by, then these earlier comments by the PM look to be part of a broader strategy of undermining the genocide trials. Despite the attempts of You Bunleng, the national co-investigating judge, to calm the situation, by stating that Blunk’s resignation had been ‘very surprising’, it remains difficult to avoid a pessimistic assessment of the trials.

While such wrangling continues to dominate the foreground of the search for justice, however, the defendants in this case, and others with possible blood on their hands from the days of the killing fields, are getting no younger. Though the latest trials inCambodiaexhibit all of the frustrations of a legal battle played out in an uncaring, even resistant political landscape, the honourable motives of the UN-assisted trial should not be forgotten. The political masters of modern-dayCambodiacannot claim to speak for the millions haunted in posterity by the bloody, reprehensible days of the Khmer Rouge. They cannot claim, either, to talk for the silent victims pictured at Tuol Sleng – who stand in for the numerous other faceless victims of the regime – when they seek to bury the past for the sake of supposed reconciliation.

The United Nations has worked hard to make the legal proceedings as open as possible to descendents of the Khmer Rouge’s victims, in particular in rural communities acrossCambodia. The distribution of video links to remote villages, as well as its programme to allow people from all overCambodiato visit the court buildings in the capital should win praise. The positive reaction and uptake by this rural majority to the UN outreach programme should certainly be taken as more representative than the words of the nay-sayers holded up in Phnom Pehn.

For such reasons, even when, as now, the hope of justice seems a scant possibility, it is worth voicing support for the trials taking place in Phnom Pehn. Blunk was right to resign if he felt that his position had become untenable, but his actions in doing so, whilst providing a warning of the danger which the current legal pursuits appear to be in, must not take away from the critical importance of the trial itself and of the ongoing need for 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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