Thursday, December 08, 2005

Cambodians hardly well-served: Justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge has been a very long time coming


The United Nations today begins deploying in Cambodia once again. This time the UN advance team's mission is to set up the logistics for the long-delayed tribunal hearing of the Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for the deaths of nearly two million people during their time in power between April 1975 and January 1979. Headed by Michelle Lee, who was appointed in August to coordinate UN assistance for the tribunal in Cambodia, the UN team will assess the situation on the ground and coordinate with the government-appointed Khmer Rouge Tribunal Task Force. Ms Lee and Mr Sean Visoth, who was recently appointed by Royal Decree as Director of the Administration of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal are scheduled to hold their first press conference today in Phnom Penh.

This is taking place as a shortlist of candidates are being interviewed by the UN for the posts of international judges, international co-prosecutor, international co-investigating judge and international judges of the pre-trial chamber, according to Stephane Dujarric, a UN spokesperson in New York.

Earlier this week, the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam), a non-profit, independent research institution on the killing fields expressed concern over the transparency of the tribunal proceedings and the lack of infrastructure for the participation of the Cambodian people.

Like many colleagues who have been working in human rights in Cambodia over the past decade, Youk Chhang, director of DC-Cam believes that the success of the tribunal will very much depend on how Cambodians deal with their feelings and hopes.

Of the nationals who were subjected to genocidal regimes in modern history, Cambodians have had to wait a very long time for closure and justice _ a total of 26 years _ unlike the survivors of Nazi Germany, Milosevic's Yugoslavia, Hutu Rwanda and Saddam's Iraq.

No doubt this long wait, most of the time overshadowed by continued civil war, political instability and poverty, means that the tribunal has taken on different meanings for different people, complicated by USaid's estimation that two out of five Cambodians today suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A Western diplomat has commented that the three years and eight months of Khmer Rouge brutality ensured that ``either you're a victim, a perpetrator ... or both.''

Other observers have a more optimistic view of the trial which they say will certainly open old wounds but could help people answer some questions about the Cambodian justice system, stimulating a dialogue among Cambodians on whether their legal apparatus works and what they want their justice system to become.

The tribunal could also serve as a reminder to young Cambodians of the unspeakable inhumanity endured by their parents under the Khmer Rouge, and perhaps inspire them to work towards building a peaceful and stable Cambodia.

So far, the Cambodian government has kept information about the tribunal low key _ and it has yet to make any announcement on its public information policy once the tribunal has started. By way of preparing the public for the tribunal, it has published only one brochure on the killing fields, last year.

The word in Phnom Penh that the candidate tipped to head the Cambodian government's national public information programme around the tribunal is a non-Khmer-speaking foreign national, serves only to underline the lack of will to ensure the transparency of tribunal proceedings and people's participation in the tribunal.

Work to prepare the public for the tribunal has largely been left to DC-Cam and other human rights organisations. A number of programmes have been implemented over the past decade, for example:

The Victims of Torture Project: A project that documents past abuses in selected sites in Cambodia by creating a climate that allows victims of torture to come forward and address their emotional needs, as well as those of their families and communities, through counselling. The project also seeks to learn survivors' views on memory and justice, and to promote community reconciliation in Cambodia.

The Living Documents Project: This will bring approximately 1,200 people (in groups of about 30) from various part of the country to witness the tribunal for one week over the course of the three-year proceedings. This is aimed at building momentum for participatory democracy and freedom of information in Cambodia.

The Public Information Room was opened at DC-Cam in April 2004 to allow scholars, reporters and the general public to view over 600,000 pages of documentation from the Khmer Rouge era, plus petitions and interview transcripts taken from survivors of the regime, and a variety of other materials that could potentially serve as evidence at the tribunal.

The Cambodian government has been dragging its feet on the tribunal issue for the past seven years and clearly remains very much a reluctant party to finding closure and justice. The reasons appear to have gone far beyond the involvement of certain high ranking government personalities in the Khmer Rouge. The tribunal is going to set a different kind of standard for justice and legitimacy which the Cambodian government is not ready to provide to its people, even after Prime Minister Hun Sen's 27 years in power.

In 1990, the UN made history by deploying the first ever transitional authority in a sovereign state, and then the world's largest peace keeping mission. This time, the UN can make history again by ensuring that the survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime find closure and justice through transparency of the tribunal's proceedings and active public participation.

With the tribunal meaning different things to different people, disagreements are expected as the most painful chapter in Cambodian history is re-opened for meticulous examination, but there are multiple ways to peacefully deal with them and reach a broad consensus. These might include assessments by the UN and Cambodian government, press reports, evaluations by local and international NGO and human rights groups, and most importantly, the opinions of the Cambodian public on whether the tribunal is serving them well.

Nusara Thaitawat is a freelance writer who has followed developments in Cambodia for many years.


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