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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

War crime tribunal needs to proceed

Viewpoint: The Japan Times (excerpt)

The wheels of justice turn slowly in Cambodia, but they grind nevertheless. Last month, a United Nations-backed tribunal began the second war crimes trials that attempt to hold accountable the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. This trial is more contentious than its predecessor, in which the defendant accepted the legitimacy of the tribunal and the need for an accounting. This time, the four defendants remain steadfast in their conviction that they did nothing wrong and that even if they did, the court has no authority over them.

This proceeding will render imperfect justice at best. But it will provide some relief for victims and their families. More significantly, it will send the signal that there is no escaping such monstrous acts. The reckoning may come late, but it must be seen to be inevitable.

The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, was set up by the UN to try former Khmer Rouge leaders charged with genocide and other war crimes. The court, with its mix of Cambodian and international judges, along with international prosecutors, was established because of fears that a Cambodian tribunal would be undermined by political interference or sheer incompetence.

Its first trial last year resulted in the conviction of former prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav, usually referred to as Comrade Duch, for the torture and murder of an estimated 16,000 people; only a handful survived detention in the notorious Tuol Sleng prison he oversaw. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The four defendants in this trial — all in their late 70s or early 80s — do not acknowledge the authority of the court nor the legal basis of the actions against them. All four claim to be innocent of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Many suggest proceedings such as these merely reopen old wounds, and threaten to undo the progress that has been made in national reconciliation. It is a powerful argument, but one that is rarely made by the victims. Indeed, the most vocal advocates of moving on tend to be those individuals who have a stake in forgetting.

There is another equally powerful reason for letting the tribunal go forward: the need to educate the Cambodian people about their past. For years, political tensions dampened attempts to explain and understand Cambodia’s past. A generation has come of age that has little knowledge of its history. The failure to understand history is a dangerous foundation upon which to build a state. Ignorance is the opposite of reconciliation.

The growing popular interest in the tribunal suggests that the “forgetting school” is wrong. It is estimated that at least 100,000 Cambodians have visited the tribunal since 2005. The 500 seats in the court are fully occupied every day. The hearings are being broadcast live on radio and television.

The Cambodian people understand that they have a stake in their past. That is the foundation of justice.
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