Sunday, February 8, 2009

Seeking justice at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal was created in 2003 and after more than 5 years, it seems that the trials of the five main defendants are finally gaining momentum in the past few months. Many have questioned the validity of the tribunal; mainly the time taken to prosecute the accused war criminals, fearing that justice will never be attained if the defendants die before any verdict is pronounced.

When you look at the amount of time taken to try less severe individual criminal cases, one can easily understand why it took so long for this tribunal to finally “do something”. However, from the limited knowledge I have about the work progress of this tribunal, I can’t help but think that the tribunal has started off with shaky foundations and unnecessary bureaucratic entanglement which have all contribute to diminishing its role and credibility.

When the UN was asked to establish the tribunal, the government of Cambodia did not welcome it with open arms. The latter insisted on having full involvement and control over the tribunal. I can certainly understand this, especially when the UN’s mission in Cambodia (UNTAC) did not leave behind a good impression on the government. In addition,  the government has always looked at foreign intervention with much scepticism and very little faith. However, it is also fair to say that the Cambodian government would not have the capacity and resources to carry out such a huge task alone.

After very long discussions, a compromise was finally agreed upon that the tribunal will be implemented jointly by the UN and the Cambodian judiciary, and held in Cambodia. This seemed to be an ideal arrangement since it would be right to have the participation of local people who truly understand the situation and as actual victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.  One would have expected that two brains often work better than one, but in this case, it was too many cooks spoil the soup.

Since then, the tribunal was confronted by criticism and controversy of corruption which resulted in foreign aid being cut down while legal paperwork continue to pile up. With the limited pool of qualified legal officers, mainly due to the lack of funding, many inexperienced legal assistants and clerks took over the role of taking evidence and witness statements.

Now, some prosecutors have insisted on adding more people to the list of defendants, receiving much protest from the government. The prosecutors reasoned that responsibility should not be limited and placed solely on top officials who ordered the execution of victims but also those who had carried out the order. The government claimed that it will take more time if this is to be carried out.

This is a difficult issue to be reckoned with. On one hand, the Cambodian people are getting impatient and frustrated with the pace of the tribunal, not to mention that the latter has lost a lot of credibility. On the other, is it right to send out a message that those who were merely carrying out orders should escape punishment? The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, in which the Khmer Rouge Tribunal relies upon, clearly stated that command responsibility is a crime.

I think that somehow, the tribunal has lost its essence and visibility. Instead of focussing on seeking justice, it has wasted a lot of time and money on solving internal problems. Let’s hope that the victims do not need to wait much longer as the trials begin this year. If anything else, let’s hope too that the UN will learn some lessons from this.

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