It was almost exactly a year ago that I sat in the living room of the man Vann Nath has described as “The Butcher of Tuol Sleng.” My interview with the former chief of guards at the Khmer Rouge interrogation and detention (read “torture”) center in Phnom Penh was an experience I’ll not soon forget. As I have written in earlier blogs, the hour I spent with the seemingly amiable Him Huy put me face-to-face with Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” and has haunted me ever since.
My interview with Him Huy was part of a larger agenda on a trip to Cambodia in quest of both perpetrators and survivors of the Khmer Rouge holocaust. There was an urgency to that trip, borne out of an understanding that the long-awaited Khmer Rouge Tribunal would likely be putting the surviving senior leaders of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea on trial for crimes against humanity before the end of 2007. Determined to provide a running commentary on the proceedings in this blog, I was attempting to prepare myself fully for my self-appointed role as a close observer of the Tribunal’s proceedings.
A year ago . . .
A YEAR LATER . . . WHERE ARE WE?
Today . . . we seem to have made little progress in the pursuit of justice against the Khmer Rouge. Plagued by a shortfall in funding, the Tribunal is limping along and seeking further financial aid from the international community. Earlier revelations of inefficiency and financial mismanagement by some on the Tribunal staff has damaged the Tribunal’s credibility and led to a reluctance by many nations to send more money to Phnom Penh.
Five former Khmer Rouge leaders are currently charged and being held in detention. Each case is winding its way slowly through pre-trial procedures as the defendants challenge the legality of their detentions and exercise other due process rights that they had once denied to the Cambodian population. The latest estimate that I have heard calls for the Tribunal to complete its work by the end of 2010.
Since every such previous estimate of the length of Tribunal proceedings has proven to be wildly optimistic, some cynicism on the part of us Tribunal observers about the reliability of the 2010 projection would seem to be justified.
Every day that goes by now without a verdict serves to erode further the prospects for true justice. Four of the five defendants could reasonably be described as elderly, and serious health problems suggest that some will not live long enough to hear a verdict pronounced even if the Tribunal does wind up by the end of 2010.
Ieng Sary, the 82 year-old former foreign minister of Democratic Kampuchea, was hospitalized in February. Today (June 30, 2008), the Tribunal was forced to postpone a hearing on Ieng’s challenge to his detention because he was suffering from exhaustion.
Khieu Samphan, the 76 year-old former head of state for the Khmer Rouge, suffered a stroke early in June and it is unclear whether he is now physically able to stand trial.
It is ironic, perhaps, that the first of the five charged defendants to stand trial is also likely to be the youngest (and the one with the least real authority in the Khmer Rouge regime). Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his revolutionary name, “Duch,” could go to trial in September, according to one of those optimistic estimates we’ve come to view with such suspicion.
THE REASONS FOR JUSTICE DELAYED AND SOON TO BE DENIED
Why the lack of progress?
The short answer, of course, is that the Tribunal caused itself a multitude of problems by fiscal mismanagement and that all legal proceedings seem inevitably to take much longer than anyone believes they will take. Financial shortfall plus legalistic wrangling equals justice moving at a snail’s pace.
But the short answer, while certainly accurate, is incomplete and misses what is perhaps the bigger lesson to be learned from the Tribunal’s delays.
There are still many people around the world who would rather not see these proceedings go to their conclusion. Washington, Hanoi, Moscow, Beijing, and quite a few other international centers of power would have reason to be nervous if the Tribunal were to put on public display some of the more troubling geo-political realities of the time during and after the Khmer Rouge regime.
The truth that the Khmer Rouge could neither have risen to power nor remained such a potent guerilla force after its fall without the active support or complicity of many powerful players in the international community is one that those same players would prefer to ignore or suppress. The Tribunal threatens to re-open some very old wounds.
One need not imply some dark and deep international conspiracy in making this observation. There has been no closed-door meeting at which it was decided that the Tribunal must be stopped at all costs. There have been no encrypted communiques passing from capital to capital.
The international community could have made the Tribunal a reality decades ago. But, because it was in everyone’s interest to denounce the Khmer Rouge rhetorically without ever actually doing anything to bring any of them to justice, nearly three decades had to pass before a legal body empowered to pursue the Khmer Rouge could take shape.
The jurisdiction of the Tribunal was severely circumscribed in the agreement between the United Nations and Cambodia by restricting it only to the senior-most surviving leaders. Every effort, it would seem, was made to keep the Tribunal’s focus squarely upon the actions of these individuals without placing them in any sort of greater global context.
You could argue, quite accurately, that the Tribunal has sometimes been its own worst enemy and that its internal issues cannot reasonably be attributed to forces at work outside of Cambodia’s borders. But you could also argue that if the world really wanted justice to come to the Khmer Rouge then the world could have cured the Tribunal’s ills with substantial cash infusions and unconditional demands that the Tribunal move forward with all deliberate speed consistent with the demands of due process.
So, it would seem that the Lucifer Effect just will not leave Cambodia alone. From the creation of the Khmer Rouge horror right up until today’s legal dithering, there has always been a group ethic of some sort at work undermining the people of Cambodia.
If we do not see justice administered soon, the Lucifer Effect will be in a position to claim total victory in the matter of the Khmer Rouge. The international culture of impunity that has been at work in Rwanda, Darfur, and so many other genocidal venues since the days of the Khmer Rouge will have been reinforced once again.
All I can do is to pray that events will prove my gloomy assessment to be badly exaggerated and that a day is coming soon when Cambodians can at last know that justice has been done.
Dear Reverend Webster,
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By Anonymous | Posted on August 8, 2008, 7:24 pm
Philip Short has written an excellent biography, "Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare." The picture it gives of the Khmer Rouge is eye opening. According to Short, Pol Pot's regime did not set out on a deliberate campaign of mass murder, although that was in fact the result of their extremist ideology, paranoia, and disastrously
misguided policies. (Short points out that many of the disasters that befell the country were due precisely to the chaotic nature of Khmer Rouge governance, rather than to any carefully and successfully executed plans.)
Also, although the Khmer Rouge leadership were certainly responsible for many crimes against the people of Cambodia, they are not the sole ones responsible for the Cambodian nightmare. The US government, with it's murderous, indiscriminate bombing of the country, created a climate of chaos and terror in Cambodia which not only killed a substantial portion of the population, but also did a lot to pave the way for the Khmer Rouge. And, as has already been pointed out, former Khmer Rouge officials run the current Cambodian government, which even today is certainly no model for transparency and humane, enlightened governance. In light of this, it is kind of hard to see the current trials as more than propaganda or "victor's justice."