The search for truth and reconciliation must continue

បាបារ៉ា ឡូកប៊ីលល័រ

Phnom Penh, 7th August 2014

On the occasion of the delivery of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal’s judgement against Khieu Samhpan and Nuon Chea Heinrich Boell Foundation spoke with Barbara Lochbihler, Member of the European Parliament and spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Human Rights of the Greens/EFA group.

With Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two of the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge were sentenced to life imprisonment. Has justice finally come to Cambodia?

Today’s court decision is a major step forward in the fight against impunity. The judgment sends a very strong message to the world: no matter who is in power and commits crimes against humanity can be held accountable.

Even more important is the effect it could have on Cambodia’s society. Of course, a sentence against two men cannot undo the horrific deeds of the Khmer Rouge. But it at last brings justice to the victims and their families, and it shows that what so many fought for in Cambodia can be achieved: an end to impunity. Despite the complexity of the cases and political pressure, the determination of all actors involved has enabled justice to be served.

At last, victims have been accepted and treated as such. Nevertheless, they continue to live side-by-side with perpetrators, and topics such as torture or attempted genocide are still kept quiet about in society. On the one hand, I therefore welcome today’s judgement as an important step for international justice in Cambodia. But it should not be seen as an automatic guarantee for societal change, which will have to be fostered and formed by the government and the Cambodian people in general.

Why has it taken thirty years to bring Khmer Rouge leaders to trial?

Post-conflict justice always takes time, but the Khmer Rouge trial was subject to particular delay. It was only after the Cold War ended and a Cambodian peace deal was signed in 1993, that the Cambodian government put a Khmer Rouge tribunal on the agenda. It took another couple of years before UN Special Rapporteur for Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg, called for a UN-aided tribunal in his 1997 human rights report. The UN General Assembly then passed a resolution, noting for the first time that crimes against humanity had occurred in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 – and that they needed to be addressed. Only then, the tribunal could be prepared. Add to this the time it takes to gather all necessary information, to organize the prosecution, and to carry out the hearings – all of this under difficult political circumstances – and you end up in 2014.

It is deplorable, indeed, that it took such a long time to bring at least two Khmer Rouge leaders to court. Especially because the delay had many observers, including victims and their relatives in Cambodia, lose faith in the judicial processes of the tribunal. But the tribunal has positive effects on society. If the Cambodian government and civil society manage to grasp the chance offered by today’s judgment, they will continue with the process of truth and reconciliation.

What is your general assessment of the court apart of this judgment?

The lengthy procedures of the court case have caused understandable frustration and disappointment. Also, the tribunal has seen political interferences when pressure was successfully put on the court to not investigate more than two cases with a total of five high level defendants. Quarrels between international and national staff at the mixed court have further hampered the proceedings. And the widespread corruption in Cambodia did not spare the Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Nevertheless, we know from experience that there is no lasting peace without justice and knowing the historical truth – which is arduous to find. With the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot having died in 1998 without facing the judges, there was a risk that Cambodia might force and rush through a hasty show trial.

On the other hand, time is running. After only two judgements – including the first 2010 sentence against Duch, the former Chairman of S-21 Security Centre – the window of opportunity for further proceedings is narrowing day-by-day, given the high age of the accused and their poor health. During the second trial one perpetrator died and another one had to be exempted due to dementia. The tribunal should continue to move forward as long as we have the chance to do so. 

The participation of victims in the Khmer Rouge Trial was a new element in International Justice.

The participation of victims has been something new, indeed. Victims were able to lodge complaints; they could be called as witnesses and seek moral reparations, at least collectively. Victims under Cambodian criminal procedure could be joined as civil parties to the trial and enjoy participatory rights akin to those of the accused. Actually, in the context of international criminal justice, the Khmer Rouge tribunal has provided for the most extensive participation of victims to date. I personally believe that this is indeed one of the very positive aspects of the Khmer Rouge trial.

But again, it is no guarantee that the way victims are seen and treated in Cambodian society will change in the near future. Therefore, I hope that the positive approach towards victims observed during the trial goes beyond the tribunal, and shows its marks on everyday life.

The EU and especially Germany funded a lot of activities in order to support the victims. And I urge them to continue their support in the future as well. Especially gender based violence against men and women and forced marriage under Khmer Rouge need more attention.

What will be the legacy of the court?

Most importantly of all, the tribunal has had an impact on Cambodian society. Many people have followed the trial either in court or on TV. Radio and television channels have broadcast regular updates on the trial, and they have used the opportunity to shed light on the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. This is of particular significance when you remember that almost two-thirds of the Cambodians are under thirty years of age. The tribunal is a means for them to learn about their proper history. It has had them get involved in history projects and in public forums, take part in essay contests – and it has motivated local NGOs to organise hearings or debates about Khmer Rouge history. Suddenly, debates seem to be possible about topics that used to be hushed up until recently, and I can only hope that everyone seizes the chance offered by the trial and today’s judgement by not letting this momentum end.

In any case, the Cambodia tribunal has shown once more why the fight against impunity is so crucial. Not only does it bring satisfaction to and restore human dignity of the victims and their relatives. It also has the power to raise awareness and to change society as a whole.

Interview: Ali Al-Nasani