• SHARE

The 1970s in Cambodia is described as one of the darkest periods in modern history. That was when the Communist Pol Pot regime, or the Khmer Rouge, exterminated nearly 2 million people during its rule from 1975 to 1979. Now, a quarter of a century since the regime collapsed, some of its former leaders face trial in a U.N.-backed special court of justice.

The country’s bicameral legislature has ratified an agreement on setting up the tribunal, which was reached between the Phnom Penh government and the United Nations in June 2003 following more than six years of negotiations. The parliamentary approval comes at a crucial moment in Cambodian politics: the ascension of Prince Norodom Sihamoni to the throne. On Thursday, he will succeed his 81-year-old charismatic father, King Norodom Sihanouk.

Memories of the genocide — a systematic killing of people — still haunt many Cambodians. Only by coming to terms with that murderous past can the country carve out a new future for itself. It is, therefore, imperative that those responsible be tried in an open and fair setting. Such a trial is indispensable not only for conveying the sense that justice prevails in Cambodia but also for preventing a similar crime against humanity.

Still, one can only wonder why it took such a long time to arrange a structure for the tribunal. Cambodian politics, given its history of plots and coups, must have been part of the reason. Ratification of the tribunal agreement was delayed as well, thanks to the July 2003 general elections, which were conducted under a U.N.-brokered constitution that produced a political dispute over the makeup of the Cabinet and a stalemate in the Parliament.

The delays, however, do not minimize the significance of the coming trial. Deputy Prime Minister Sok Ann, who has played a central role in the negotiations with the U.N., struck the right note when he said, “We have fulfilled the supreme task of seeking justice for the victims and contributing to the cause of all of humanity, which is to prevent the repeat of genocide.”

Mr. Sok Ann expects that the trial will open by the end of next year and that about 10 former leaders of the Pol Pot faction will be prosecuted. Some vital questions remain, however. One is whether a fair trial will be conducted — a question that challenges the rules of international criminal law.

The original U.N. plan — to establish an international court along the lines of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia — fell through, as Cambodia opposed an international format that invested a great deal of authority in third-country prosecutors and judges. So a compromise was worked out to set up a Cambodian court with U.N. support. International human-rights groups have criticized the plan as falling short of fairness standards.

A second question is who should be prosecuted. No doubt former Premier Pol Pot, the head of the Kampuchean People’s Republic who masterminded a campaign of terror that killed at least 1.7 million Cambodians, should top the list, but he died in April 1998. It is certain, though, that some surviving Khmer Rouge leaders will be brought to justice, although Deputy Prime Minister Sok Ann did not give any names.

It is unclear at the moment whether the Cambodian government will agree to the prosecution of Mr. Ieng Sary, the former deputy premier in charge of foreign affairs who surrendered to the government in 1996. The surrender opened the way for the demise of the Pol Pot faction and earned Mr. Ieng Sary a pardon from King Sihanouk.

Prime Minister Hun Sen is reportedly of the view that if action is brought against all suspects the country might plunge into a political crisis and, worse, a new civil war. But sparing a key figure like Mr. Ieng Sary seems difficult now that the legislature has passed legislation allowing the tribunal to decide who should be tried. This is taken to mean that even those who have been pardoned are not entirely free from prosecution.

Funding also casts a shadow. The total cost of the tribunal, estimated at $57 million, is to be shared equally by Cambodia and the international community. At the moment, Australia is the only country to pledge a contribution (about $3 million). Other nations need to follow suit.

In terms of criminality, the Cambodian genocide is often equated with the Holocaust. Therefore, people around the world, not just Cambodians, will be keenly watching how the Khmer Rouge tribunal shapes up. It is a question that will likely affect future international criminal trials of tyrants accused of mass murders, such as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW