Khmer Rouge dodge a UN trial
Local trial, and leniency, called more likely for leaders of Cambodia's
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — What happens when a nation that suffered orchestrated mass killing decides it'll take a pass on international justice?
Few crimes generate as wide a call for retribution. The Israelis hunted down and captured Nazi war criminals. Rwandans sentenced a series of low-level war criminals to death, and rulings from their international tribunal established new standards, characterizing rape, for example, as a crime against humanity under certain circumstances.
And calls have gone out from some quarters to eventually level war-crimes charges against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for "ethnic cleansing," most recently in Kosovo.
But nowhere are the challenges of getting accused parties to trial - under terms acceptable to the international community - better illustrated than in Cambodia, where more than 1 million people died during the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge.
A bruising round of talks between the Cambodian government and the United Nations human rights envoy has made it even clearer there is little chance for an international trial for the Khmer Rouge - the radical communist group under whose regime more than 1 million people died from starvation, torture, and murder - diplomats, politicians, and scholars here say.
Thomas Hammarberg, the UN secretary-general's special representative for human rights in Cambodia, said Friday his two-week visit was simply a briefing before the General Assembly considers an international trial for the Khmer Rouge.
But politicians here say Mr. Hammarberg admitted privately that Prime Minister Hun Sen will determine any future trial and that there is little chance of anything more than a local tribunal with limited international assistance. Hun Sen has been able, so far, to win a trial he can control and at the same time please international patrons who would frown on any large-scale spectacle, diplomats and scholars say.
"The communist style is to wear out your enemies," says Lao Mong Hay, executive director for the Khmer Institute for Democracy, referring to Hun Sen's involvement in communist Cambodia from 1979-89. "The more patient you are, the more likely it is you can dictate terms to your enemies.
"In the end, the international community will give up," he says. "They have more important matters to deal with, like Kosovo."
Events have unfolded like falling dominoes since a group of experts in February recommended an international trial for top Khmer Rouge leaders. Soon after the report was issued, the sole remaining Khmer Rouge outlaw, Ta Mok, was captured and Cambodia announced it would try him in a local forum - spurning any international trial.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, however, generally endorsed the experts' proposal and dispatched Hammarberg to Phnom Penh, where he met with top government officials and then with Hun Sen last Thursday night.
Hammarberg said his meeting with Hun Sen simply clarified the government's position, which is to try Ta Mok, a brutal chieftan during the 1975-79 regime and the most recent leader of the rebel movement, in a local trial.
The depth of international involvement in such a trial will depend on how quickly Cambodia's courts can transform themselves into legitimate forums for justice. UN experts, human rights groups and the Cambodian Bar Association have said the Cambodian justice system is under Hun Sen's control and ill-equipped to handle a Khmer Rouge trial. Hammarberg has said the UN will not lend itself to anything that doesn't meet international standards of justice.
Hun Sen has tried more and more, at least in appearance, to establish the court's independence. In a letter to Mr. Annan, he said the UN must now deal with court prosecutors and not the prime minister's office in discussing any future trials.
"It's all about standards," Hammarberg said Friday. "It's whether the proposal designed by the government of Cambodia meets [international] standards. This is what the member states have to discuss."
Hun Sen's greatest weapon against a tribunal, diplomats have said, is his ability to outpace the UN bureaucracy and quickly try Ta Mok, whom diplomats describe as the perfect Khmer Rouge stooge. Ta Mok was a military leader experts say can be directly linked to bloody internal purges and the Khmer Rouge torture center, Tuol Sleng, in which thousands died. Some scholars directly link Ta Mok to at least 100,000 deaths.
Unlike other Khmer Rouge leaders with similar pedigrees - including Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, and Ieng Sary - Ta Mok is generally disliked by Khmer Rouge defectors living comfortably in the Cambodia-Thailand border area. He was reportedly captured by Khmer Rouge defectors who until recently fought beside him.
Few think Ta Mok would see any lengthy prison term. Lao Mong Hay fears if Ta Mok threatens to implicate Khmer Rouge leaders who defected to the government or tries to taint Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, he would be killed.
Several diplomats envision a trial but no punishment.
"Maybe he'll be given some kind of judgment, but then some kind of [appeal] will be made and the government will consider it and give him an amnesty or a very light sentence," one Southeast Asian diplomat said.
So far, the events have pleased China, the Khmer Rouge's greatest ally during the regime and a supporter of the rebels in the 1980s. China has said it would use its Security Council veto against any international trial.
Thailand has also backed Cambodia's decision for a local hearing. Kyodo News Service said Sunday Japan now wavers in its support.
But emotions for an international trial run deep. The government's position, supported by a significant portion of the Cambodian population, is that retired Khmer Rouge leaders would rise up if there is an international trial.
But the majority opinion, backed by the bulk of Khmer intellectuals, opposition politicians, and the international community, dismisses this argument and says an international tribunal is necessary to cleanse the country of its 25-year-old genocide.