30 Years of Impunity Has to Stop Now with Greater Accountability at the KRT

Posted by khmernews on January 13, 2009

Voice of Justice

30 Years of Impunity Has to Stop Now with Greater Accountability at the KRT

Phnom Penh, 7 January 2009

Thirty years ago today, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia liberated us from the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge which took the lives of 2 million Cambodians, including those of my parents and other relatives.  However, three decades later, Cambodians are still not free and continue to live under the long shadow of their atrocities:  justice remains elusive for the millions of victims of the KR regime, as well as for the many ordinary Cambodians who suffer the injustices of the legal system in which impunity has become the norm.

Now, for the first time, our country confronts a truly unique opportunity, a chance to realize accountability for the crimes of the KR and to create a new precedent for our embryonic domestic criminal justice system through the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers or informally, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) which currently is detaining 5 KR leaders  The recent decision of this KRT’s National Co-Prosecutor to oppose the International Co-Prosecutor’s proposed investigations into 6 further suspects jeopardizes this opportunity and amounts to yet another betrayal of the Cambodian people by our country’s political elite.

The National Co-Prosecutor’s arguments are nothing more than a smokescreen for government fears that wider prosecutions will expose former KR cadre who now occupy positions of power to scrutiny.

The International Co-Prosecutor’s recent assurances that these new suspects represent “the extent of which the prosecution will be” should provide security that with such limited prosecutions, Cambodia’s security hardly hangs in the balance.

If anything, it is the possibility of continuing impunity for a select few coupled with the risk that the KRT will fail to fulfill its mandate and satisfy local expectations that poses the biggest threat to national stability and reconciliation.

Just as Cambodians need to prepare for the eventuality that these 5 may not all be convicted, so too should the Co-Prosecutors. They have a narrow window in which to increase the capacity of the KRT to secure accountability, and the decision of the National Co-Prosecutor risks missing it.

The prosecution of more than 5 suspects is hardly going to contradict the original mandate of the KRT when its primary purpose is to bring to trial KR senior leaders and those who are most responsible for the crimes committed.  Of the 5 suspects in pre-trial detention, only the former head of the infamous Tuol Sleng torture center—Duch—falls into the second category.  Surely the KRT can and should prosecute a few more of those who were most responsible alongside the senior leaders?

The best way for the Cambodian side of the KRT to overcome concerns about its independence and to show that the KRT is not a tool of the government is to allow legitimate investigations to continue.  That responsibility now lies with the KRT’s Pre-Trial Chamber, and particularly with its three Cambodian judges who must demonstrate their independence in deciding whether these investigations will go ahead.

Arguing that a small number of additional prosecutions would overstretch its duration and budget deflects attention from the reality in these kinds of criminal trials. To date, every other recent international or hybrid criminal tribunal like those for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and East Timor, has had to confront the question of limited time and resources. Yet none has failed to extend its period of operation, shied away from its mandate or prosecuted just 5 suspects. If the KRT can continue to convince donors that it is sufficiently independent and capable of delivering the accountability its mandate promises, then donors are likely to support any attempt to prosecute a more respectable number of suspects.

Improved accountability is Cambodia’s best weapon against impunity and in this regard we desperately need the KRT to set a positive legacy.  We Cambodians achingly yearn for peace.  Until now, we have been satisfied with peace only in the absence of war.  It is not enough; we want more.  We want peace with the presence of justice, a more positive peace of accountability.  The KRT offers this opportunity for peace with accountability that comes to very few post-conflict societies like ours: it is both a luxury and necessity that warrants us exploring its full potential.

To limit prosecution to 5 individuals dictated by factors other than evidence and justice for the victims is to dishonor the memories of the 2 million dead and the courage of the survivors, as well as to leave a negative legacy of deeper cynicism and impunity.


By Theary C. SENG

Executive Director

For past VOJ articles, please visit: “Voice of Justice:  Newspaper Columns”.


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