International Justice for Cambodia?

It’s not an easy thing to establish a just process, especially if it is to be recognised as just by different people, in different places, from different viewpoints.  It is a central element of social stability that members of a society accept that the processes of justice are fair and impartial, even if they disagree with the outcomes.  The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia were set up to prosecute those responsible for the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s.  From the beginning they resulted from a political compromise between the desire of the international community to find and punish those responsible for some of the worst crimes of the 20th Century and the political manoeuvrings of Hun Sen, keen to stitch up the right kinds of deals with the powerbrokers of Cambodia that would allow him to remain in power through deals and patronage.

Hun Sen

The international Human Rights view was represented forcefully by the UN, so necessary to Cambodia after the aid tap from the Soviet Union was turned off in 1990-1.  A condition of the agreement by which Cambodia was readmitted to the family of nations was that it must go ahead with free and fair elections and bring to justice those who had committed the genocide.  However the world looked very different from the desk of Hun Sen, the leader of Soviet Communist Cambodia in the 1980s.  For him, building a coalition of supporters from among the new powerbrokers of post-Communist Cambodia was the way to power, but he is/was a brilliant political tactician, and realised that, much as he did not want to, he would have to work on the surface with the new international powerbrokers – the UN, political rights lobbies, the aid agencies, without whom Cambodia would have collapsed into an Asian Somalia.

Hun Sen has never believed a word of the human rights/democracy agenda.  He has scraped along for 20 years doing as little as was necessary to keep the aid rolling in, to appease the international lobbies, while basically resenting their interference.  His real political aim has been to build coalitions of the powerful, through alliances and patronage, smearing as little of ‘Western democracy’ as he can get away with over this process.    In his favour, it has to be said that he has managed to secure many years of peace, after 30 years of civil war – no mean achievement, and one of the reasons he is popular (increasingly so, as evidenced in recent elections) with even those Cambodians who do not profit from his patronage and who may be at risk from the way in which those in power can operate with impunity to further their own ambitions (see Country for Sale ).   Karzai in Afghanistan seems to be playing a similar role.  There, the ‘forces of democracy’ now seem to have accepted that, in the real world, where power is unevenly distributed, the superficial democracy of Karzai, based on deals with warlords (and soon, we hear, with the Taliban), is the best that can be hoped for.  Karzai seems to know how to run Afghanistan better than we do .. and whatever the various aid agencies and Human Rights organisations say, Hun Sen certainly knows how to run Cambodia.

Last year, after the conviction of Comrade Duch for the torture and murder of many in the S21 prison in Phnom Penh (Australian News report on Duch ), Hun Sen announced that only four more KR officials would be tried, so that Cambodia could move on.   Today I found out that the cases against them are further compromised – Phnom Penh Post, 4.10.11.

It’s so easy to understand why.  The cases are complex.  In addition, the Extraordinary Chambers are a unique judicial setup:  a joint court, with a majority of Cambodian judges, supported by a minority of international judges appointed by the UN, who also support the prosecution and defence processes.  This extraordinary structure avoided the real danger that a process based in the Hague would be seen by many Cambodians as unjust (in the same way as many Serbians saw the trial of Milosevic as anti-Serbian rather than pro-Human Rights) and that those tried might become national heroes in Cambodia.  On the other hand, the international community did not believe that Cambodian courts could be trusted, or that Cambodian lawyers or judges were up to the task.  So we got this compromise, which owes more to politics than to the law.  How long has it been at work?  Too long.  How much has it cost?  Too much.  And what has been achieved?  Something… but not much after all.  Did we not already know that these leaders of the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of millions?

The international community is still trying, however expensive and time-consuming the process, to bring those responsible (and surely there are many more) to justice.  That had to be done, but we also have to acknowledge that the compromised system that was established will only deliver very limited results.  We know that democracy cannot be imposed, and yet we cannot stand by and allow such horrifying human rights abuses as were committed by the Khmer Rouge to go unpunished. But that is only part of the story.

Maybe it is we, the citizens, who should use our power more, as our governments come to terms with the limits to their power.  We can and should take action for a better future – through our friendships, through our support for Amnesty and similar organisations, through our use of our economic power as consumers, through our thirst for justice.   The people of Cambodia want our friendship and want to be part of the international community.  The country is relatively open.  Cambodia is not Myanmar or North Korea.   The young people of Cambodia are interested in looking forward, not back.  Perhaps the success of failure of this difficult trial process is not as important as the support we give to them in helping them to build a better future.

Court Scene

One of the VSO team whom I went out with (Sam of the ‘Gilly and Sam’ blog you can link to on the right – they’re doing some great work too) sent me the link to a Peace Corps blog  (Judy’s Blog ) where Judy (who has taken over working with Or Siem on one of the projects I passed on when I left in April) describes what is happening now.  It’s grown arms and legs.  It will improve the education of Cambodian children in a whole range of ways.   It happened because VSO and Peace Corps got into partnership with the Ministry of Education.  That’s a process that’s delivering human rights for the future.


3 thoughts on “International Justice for Cambodia?

  1. Pingback: Judge quits Cambodia genocide trial | Danny Murphy's VSO Blog

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