Monday, Jul. 10, 2006
The swearing-in on July 3 of 25 genocide-tribunal judges and prosecutors was a historic step toward justice for the estimated 1.7 million Cambodians killed under the Khmer Rouge. But the real work starts this week, when U.N. co-prosecutor Robert Petit begins building a case against those responsible for the atrocities committed during the group's 1975-79 reign.
Petit, an intense, 44-year-old Canadian, is a U.N. veteran who has worked in Rwanda, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Kosovo. "I never wanted to be anything else but a prosecutor," he says. "Someone has to stand up for those who can't—or weren't able to." In Cambodia, that challenge is unique. Petit and his Cambodian co-prosecutor Chea Leang must build their case concerning crimes committed more than a quarter of a century ago. Of all the war crimes he has dealt with, "this is the longest elapsed time between the acts and accountability," says Petit. "It presents issues with the state of memory and the state of documents ... There is the issue of the age of the perpetrators as well." Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998; his surviving lieutenants, in their 70s and 80s, may not live to be sentenced.
There also could be political obstacles. The question of who can be called as a witness—and possibly give embarrassing testimony about former Khmer Rouge members still in government—is acutely sensitive. Officials have also said that only a handful of the most senior Khmer Rouge leaders would stand trial. But under the tribunal's laws, says Petit, the prosecution has a mandate to target "senior leaders and those most responsible"—and he's putting the emphasis on those most responsible. "The idea of these tribunals is that ... if you do certain things you will be held accountable," he says. "It is making a statement about humanity, about who we are or maybe even who we want to be—which might be more important."