Twenty years ago, I worked as a volunteer at refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodia border. One incident, in particular, is a stark reminder for me of the tragedy millions of Cambodians have suffered in the past three decades. While I was assisting a teenage girl to the camp hospital, she came face-to-face with a Khmer Rouge member who, she alleged, decapitated her father and two brothers.
Stories such as this young girl's have been the norm, not the exception in Cambodia. Under the Khmer Rouge's rule from 1975-79, about a million Cambodians lost their lives. The US is leading a movement to establish a United Nations tribunal to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity. But China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, rejects the idea of an international court. China played a leading role throughout the Cambodian conflict and supported the Khmer Rouge and other Cambodian factions with money and weapons. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), led by Thailand, echos China's views, saying many countries were involved in Cambodia's civil wars - including the US and Thailand - and that Cambodians should decide on how to deal with the leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
But such attitudes beg the following question: How can justice be served when Cambodia remains a largely lawless state and its judiciary has more than its share of corrupt, untrained judges and prosecutors? Such lawlessness has fostered a cycle of violence in which the rich and well-connected flourish in a culture of impunity.
Cambodia's Prime Minister, Hun Sen, goes to Japan Feb. 25 to appeal to donor nations for $1.3 billion in foreign assistance over a three-year period. Reforms in the his plan range from cracking down on illegal logging and drug trafficking to promoting tourism and agricultural production. While these issues are important, the prime minister won't be likely to mention anything about judicial reform - the most important challenge the government should be confronting.
Cambodia's objectives at present are national reconciliation, peace, prosperity, and stability. If these are to be accomplished, the country must reform its system of justice. Otherwise, human rights will remain unprotected and citizens will remain disenfranchised from their government.
From time to time, I think about what happened to that poor, young girl who lost her entire family. She and millions of Cambodians have been denied justice for so long, and yet have shown remarkable resilience in trying to rebuild lives shattered by war, superpower intervention, starvation, and abuse of power.
The international community should assist Cambodia in developing a justice system predicated on the rule of law and access to justice for everyone in society. But such assistance should be forthcoming when the Cambodian Government is able to demonstrate its resolve in ceasing extrajudicial killings, press censorship, and threats and intimidation of people who hold views contrary to the country's leadership. Until then, the Cambodian government will likely come up short in rebuilding the country and becoming a respected member of the international community.
*John J. Brandon is a Southeast Asia specialist in Washington, D.C.