Asia Program

Events

The Khmer Rouge: The International Community’s Role in Truth and Justice in Cambodia

September 10, 2003 // 2:30pm5:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity

Ambassador David Scheffer, Georgetown University Law Center; Kek Galabru, Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights; Sok Sam Oeun, Cambodian Defenders Project; Thun Saray, Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association; Moderator: Frederick Z. Brown, The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University.

The establishment of peace and democracy has been tenuous and halting in Cambodia, a country that has experienced war and genocide in its recent history. In order to address the crimes of the “killing fields,” the Cambodian government and the United Nations engaged in lengthy negotiations to establish a tribunal for crimes against humanity during the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. What are the prospects for achieving truth and justice in Cambodia with these tribunals and what is the role of the United States and the international community? This meeting, co-sponsored with the Conflict Prevention Project of the Wilson Center and the Asia Society Washington Center follows a symposium in New York on “The Khmer Rouge: Challenges and Opportunities for Truth and Justice in Cambodia,” organized by the Asia Society in collaboration with the International Center for Transitional Justice and Human Rights Watch.

Keynote speaker David Scheffer, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues and current visiting professor of International Law at Georgetown University Law Center, outlined the challenges in establishing the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea, the legal institution that will bring members of the former Khmer Rouge to justice. Among the contentious issues are:the selection of target suspects; the appointment of co-judges and co-prosecutors from Cambodia and the international community; the super-majority rule; the establishment of due process standards; and the financing for the tribunals. While acknowledging many people’s deep reservations about the Extraordinary Chambers and the Cambodian government’s ability and commitment to its implementation, Ambassador Scheffer exhorted the international community to “seize reality, not abandon it” and to engage constructively with the process. Moreover, Scheffer recommended that the United States, France, China and Russia not offer a judge to sit on the tribunals given their history of involvement in Cambodia. Rather, the U.S. and others might offer political and financial support.

In the subsequent panel discussion, three Cambodian speakers from NGO community offered their views. Kek Galabru, president of the Cambodian League for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, expressed skepticism about the Extraordinary Chambers law, citing the lack of institutional capacity and competence in the national court system. She emphasized the importance of civil society at the local, regional, and international level in monitoring the tribunal process and ensuring that there is sufficient grassroots knowledge of and support for the process. A “parallel track” of NGO networking would help strengthen accountability by exposing failure to prosecute criminals, educating and conferring with the public about the process and human rights norms, and documenting crimes independent of the courts.

Sok Sam Ouen, executive director of the Cambodian Defender’s Project, focused on capacity building efforts and remedying institutional weaknesses in the legal system. According to Ouen, the tribunals will provide access to justice for victims, relieving Khmer Rouge era trauma, and providing a model for the future legal system in Cambodia and for international justice related to crimes against humanity. Capacity building involves not only training judges, prosecutors and investigators in rules and procedure, but also ensuring that potential defendants are made aware of the law and their rights.

Critical of the notion put forward by some national leaders that to have peace, Cambodians must forget justice, Thun Saray, the president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, argued that the two goals must be achieved concurrently. He echoed the other speakers call for a parallel track involving civil society, but insisted that tribunals must come first in order to avoid confusion among the NGOs, the public, and the international donor community. Saray suggested that the NGO community could help monitor the integrity of the tribunal process– the nomination of judges, the establishment of rules, and the independence of the judiciary from political manipulation.

There was some disagreement among the speakers about whether a Truth Commission, similar to that of South Africa and created in parallel with the tribunals, would ultimately help or hinder national reconciliation and justice. There was a consensus that the ultimate success of the Extraordinary Chambers would depend upon the political will of Cambodian leaders, the ability of the U.N. to recruit competent and impartial judges and prosecutors, and the effectiveness of civil society in monitoring the tribunals and maintaining the public’s interest in justice and human rights.

The speakers all agreed that in addition to ending the culture of impunity and giving a sense of justice and closure to Cambodians, the tribunals would also be an important step towards establishing the rule of law in Cambodia. To succeed, the international community will need to give financial support as well as political backing to the process.

Carla Koppell, interim director, Conflict Prevention Project, 202-691-4083.
Robert M. Hathaway, director, Asia Program, 202-691-4012
Drafted by Wilson Lee, program assistant, Asia Program.

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