Tribunal for Khmer Rouge War Criminals May Be Last Chance to End Cambodia's "Culture of Impunity"

April 7, 2004

Jennifer RasmussenNearly two million people-a quarter of the Cambodian population-perished during Pol Pot's reign from 1974-79, but no one under his regime has ever been punished for their actions. A recent push by several nations and some within Cambodia to charge top war-crimes leaders offers some hope for Cambodians, said Jennifer Rasmussen, Deputy Director for Core Program Design at Global Rights, a human rights advocacy organization. But the government's ties to former Khmer Rouge leaders and the lack of political will in the country to punish criminals casts doubt on whether the proposed tribunal will indict anyone, she explained at an April 6 talk sponsored by the Human Rights Program.

"You have neighbors living next to neighbors, who they know killed their father, their mother, their sister, or their child-and nothing's happened, and years and years go by," Rasmussen said. "Justice becomes a really sketchy term for these people."

Khmer Rouge war crimes are "not even acknowledged" in Cambodia, Rasmussen added. "Most people think that indictments, if they do come forward, will be dismissed."

As the Vietnam War crossed into Cambodia's borders, it sparked the Khmer Rouge regime, which began the "Year Zero" anti-modernist movement to return the nation to an agrarian society; they outlawed books and medicine, made city dwellers second-class citizens, and in particular massacred monks and people in the religious minority.

Although the United Nations, the international community, and Cambodians have tread back and forth on the tribunal issue, there is a growing sense that this may be the last chance to hold anyone accountable, Rasmussen explained. The people want the court to address why and how the massacres happened, and how the country can move forward and rid itself of the still-pervasive atmosphere of impunity.

Rasmussen said two of the people most deserving of indictments have at one time lived in the home of Cambodian prime minister Samdech Hun Sen, who is in charge of appointing Cambodian judges to the tribunal; his statements have suggested he wants the past to be buried. Reports indicate the chosen judges are among the most conservative the country has to offer. Most Cambodian judges don't even have a high school education, Rasmussen explained, and the concept of an independent judiciary is new to the nation. The tribunal's confusing structure has complicated the situation; the majority of judges will be Cambodian, a minority will be internationals. But a judicial decision can only be made with a "supermajority"-a majority plus one other judge, ensuring that an international judge must agree in any decision the court issues. There's no rule guiding what happens if a supermajority cannot be reached.

Still, some Cambodians have hope that the process will at least spread word of the Khmer Rouge's war crimes.

"People don't talk, even to this day [about the Khmer Rouge]," Rasmussen said. "There is also this sense that this will lower some of the barriers."

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