Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 8 (Spring 1997): Transitional Justice in East Asia and its Impact on Human Rights: Articles: A Reassessment of Peace and Justice in Cambodia

Mar 5, 1997

With so much uncertainty in Cambodian daily life as we struggle to rebuild our country and lives, it is hard to concentrate on the abuses of past regimes. But when we do discuss transitional justice, we focus on the greatest violator of human rights in Cambodian history: the infamous Khmer Rouge.

In the last six months, several Khmer Rouge factions, most notably one led by Ieng Sary, a former Khmer Rouge leader, have joined the Cambodian government. Yet, these are the very same people who tried to upset and eventually withdrew from the United Nations-brokered peace process in the early nineties. The reentry of former Khmer Rouge leaders into public life calls for a reassessment of the situation in Cambodia. While the vast majority of Cambodians are hopeful that this signals an end to the civil war between the current government and the Khmer Rouge, more cautious individuals question Khmer Rouge motivations: Are they joining the government now so they can dominate it in the future?

The challenges facing the current government is how to promote social justice and development, and prevent massive corruption. By seriously addressing these issues, the government can make it difficult for the Khmer Rouge to return to power. Good governance could do more toward achieving national reconciliation than force.

However with a weak and feuding government in place, as is the case right now, a coalition with the Khmer Rouge could be dangerous. As a Cambodian proverb says, "one bad fish can spoil the whole barrel." In the past months, bickering between factions in the coalition government has increased, providing the Khmer Rouge an opportunity to resurface and exploit the conflict in order to obtain amnesty. (Last year Ieng Sary was granted amnesty, and in late February there was discussion that even Pol Pot and Ta Mok may be amnestied.)

In thinking about our national development, it is necessary to reexamine the issues of amnesty and transitional justice. Who was behind the Khmer Rouge? Cambodians did kill Cambodians. Who ordered the deaths of thousands of Cambodians? I do not blame the village leaders who pulled the triggers. Ignorant and loyal, they were brainwashed into believing that the people they killed had been the cause of their difficult lives. We need to know who indoctrinated these village-level leaders. We need to know who is guilty.

Until we have full disclosure about the individuals behind the Khmer Rouge and their crimes, there will be no justice for the millions of people who suffered and died. Those who were responsible for this radical regime must be identified, investigated, and tried before an international tribunal. Those found guilty under international law must apologize. Only after they have served their sentences may they reenter Cambodian society. An amnesty law with clear principles and procedures must be developed for those who played lesser roles. The controversial law currently in force, which outlaws the Khmer Rouge, must be amended or abolished before any future amnesties are granted. Recent amnesties of Ieng Sary and others have taken place verbally, but to have justice, amnesties must be on paper.

In the short run, an international truth commission, composed of eminent Cambodian and international representatives, is needed to reveal the atrocities of the past and establish responsibility. This would help the Cambodian people achieve peace. Following the truth commission, an international tribunal is needed to punish those found to be most accountable for Khmer Rouge crimes and to prevent such leaders from entering Cambodianpolitics ever again. The tribunal must be international because Cambodian courts are not independent, a result of judges feeling beholden to the political parties who pay them, and are fraught with other problems, namely a lack of trained judges.

The questions then are: Who will initiate these international fora? Who will pay for them? The issue of responsibility is an important one: How should the international community acknowledge and respond to past genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes? If these questions ever find answers, an international tribunal would do much to help Cambodians come to terms with their violent past so they can go on with their future.

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