Sophal Ear: Khmer Rouge Tribunal and a Miscarriage of Justice

Roundup: Talking About History

[Sophal Ear is an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is writing a book on the unintended consequences of foreign aid in Cambodia.]

When my mother — who saved me and four siblings from starvation under the Khmer Rouge in 1976 — passed away in October 2009 at the age of 73, I realized that for her justice delayed had become justice denied. (I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the words “justice delayed is justice denied” had never really sunk in until my mother’s passing.)

As an observant Buddhist, however, my mother probably had the last word. She always said that no matter what happened to the Khmer Rouge leadership in their current lifetime, Karmic justice would prevail in the next: They would be reborn as cockroaches.

I am certain that this belief has helped millions of survivors cope with the reality that, after more than three decades since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, not a single leader has been held to account....

Plagued by corruption, the tribunal was essentially hijacked to advance domestic and international agendas. For domestic politicians, the goal was to control the process by placing it in a heavily secured military base some 20 kilometers from Phnom Penh and to reduce its scope by limiting the number of individuals it could indict (five) while currying international favor for addressing, superficially at least, crimes against humanity.

The Cambodian government has even sought to limit the witnesses the tribunal could call to testify under the oft-repeated claim of the threat of another civil war. “If the court wants to charge more former senior Khmer Rouge cadres, [it] must show the reasons to Prime Minister Hun Sen,” the prime minister said, referring to himself in the third person. In any case, the tribunal has no independent means of enforcing its subpoenas without government cooperation.

For many of the foreigners involved, Cambodia served as yet another venue for pushing hybrid models of transitional justice while creating jobs for international civil servants and a stage for foreign lawyers whose careers depend on adding another tribunal to their curriculum vitae. If nothing else, they can pat themselves on the back for showing the Cambodians how justice is done....

Justice in that sense is meaningless, but my hope was that in the not-too-distant future the next Pol Pot might have to think twice about genocide....

Lost in all this are those very Cambodians for whom the tribunal was supposed to enact international standards of justice and be a cathartic experience. Instead, the tribunal has been corrosive. Jaded from a failed 1993 U.N. exercise in democracy that led inexorably toward authoritarianism, Cambodians have learned their lesson: Don’t believe in international promises; they are not kept.

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