Convictions, not justice, in Cambodia

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), an international tribunal that is attempting to mete out justice for the extraordinary crimes committed in Cambodia during the murderous reign of the Khmer Rouge, last week gave two top leaders of that regime life sentences. The rulings were expected — not certain, however — and while gratifying raise larger questions about the work of the tribunal, the rulings it has handed down and justice. None of the answers are very comforting.

The ECCC was set up in 2006 with support from the United Nations to prosecute senior officials of the Khmer Rouge government that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, and brought about the deaths of at least 1.6 million people and perhaps as many as 2.2 million — about one-quarter of the country’s population — during that interregnum. The tribunal is an odd creation: an ad hoc Cambodian court with international participation, that uses Cambodian and international staff. That hybrid is designed to compensate for the shortcomings in the Cambodian legal infrastructure and to ensure that the trials meet international standards.

As of 2013, the court had spent more than $200 million, and had produced just one verdict in its eight years: the conviction in 2010 of Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known by his alias, Duch, who was commandant of the Tuol-Sleng S-21 prison, one of the most infamous monuments to human barbarity to be found anywhere in the world. More than 14,000 people died in the prison, many of them tortured in horrific ways. Kaing was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder and torture.

In the second case, the first half of which concluded last week, “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and former President Khieu Samphan, “Brother Number Four,” were found guilty of crimes against humanity during Khmer Rouge rule. They were held responsible for the evacuation of the capital city of Phnom Penh — from 1.5 million to 2.6 million people — in the attempt to forge a new utopian country, uncontaminated by “old” ideas or thinking. It is reckoned that some 20,000 died — half by execution, half as a result of starvation and exhaustion — during this effort to create “Year Zero.” The verdicts also covered the execution of officials of the former government at a site known as Tuol Po Chrey.

Judge Nil Nonn explained that “There were widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population of Cambodia, attacks through many forms — forced transfer, murder, extermination, disappearances, attacks against human dignity and political persecution.” During the trial, Nuon Chea acknowledged that he was “morally responsible” and Khieu Samphan expressed regret but claimed that he merely served as a figurehead in the government.

In the second half of the trial, the men will be tried on charges of genocide. The decision was made to split the indictments to make the legal proceedings more manageable, as well as facilitate the reaching of some verdicts while the two men were still alive. Nuon Chea is 88, and in poor health; Khieu Samphan is 83. Originally, there were four defendants, but Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister, died in 2012 at the age of 87, and his wife, ex-Minister for Social Affairs Ieng Thirith, has Alzheimer’s disease and was found unfit for trial.

The wheels of justice invariably turn slowly, but the work of the ECCC has been undermined by disputes between U.N. employees and local officials. There have been pronounced battles over the independence of the tribunal and those disagreements have worried funders who fear that show trials will result, not justice.

Cases are already being built against five more as yet unnamed defendants, but there is great resistance from the current Cambodian government, and Prime Minister Hun Sen in particular, about proceeding. That resistance reflects the fact that the current government includes remnants of the Khmer Rouge — Hun Sen himself was once a member before joining the Vietnamese-backed movement that overthrew that regime — and there are concerns about how far the investigations will go. That messy history along with Hun Sen’s nationalism provide two compelling reasons for the government to object to an international tribunal. The statement by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An suggests this may be the end of the tribunal. While the government “welcomes this delivery of judgment,” he added that “we are happy to see this is the conclusion.”

There should be no doubt that the three convictions gained this far are fair and just. But to suggest that those defendants — along with Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Pol Pol, “Brother Number One” who died in 1998 before he could be brought to justice — should alone shoulder responsibility for the crimes and inhumanities committed against the Cambodian people is absurd. The current investigations are reportedly focusing on senior cadres who implemented the leadership’s decisions, yet even to expand the net to that size would not suffice. A greater reckoning is required if there is to be real justice. Indeed, what may well be demanded is something other than a legal proceeding. A show trial may offer some relief, but it will only be fleeting. The crimes committed in Cambodia some four decades ago demand more.