By Ed CropleyReuters
June 6, 2003
The United Nations signed a landmark agreement with Cambodia on Friday to set up special courts to try the aging leaders of the 1970s "Killing Fields" genocide of the Khmer Rouge. U.N. chief negotiator Hans Corell inked the deal on behalf of the U.N. General Assembly, which last month endorsed plans to create "extraordinary chambers" in the Cambodian legal system to try Pol Pot's few surviving henchmen. "This is indeed an historic day for Cambodia and all humanity," his Cambodian counterpart, Senior Minister Sok An, told 700 diplomats, media and officials crammed into the Chaktomuk Conference Hall, the likely venue of the trial.
Corell conceded the negotiations, which stretched over five years, had not been easy but said they had hopefully paved the way for justice for the estimated 1.7 million victims of the ultra-Maoist regime. "With this step, the quest of the Cambodian people for justice, national reconciliation, stability, peace and security is brought closer to realization," he said.
Nearly two million people are believed to have died at the hands of Pol Pot's government during their four-year reign of terror in the jungle-clad southeast Asian nation from 1975 to 1979. Most of the victims were executed or died of starvation, overwork or disease as the Khmer Rouge's vision of a peasant utopia descended into the nightmare of one of the 20th century's worst atrocities.
After years of delays, money is now the only major obstacle remaining to the trial. An estimated $19 million price tag is way beyond anything deeply impoverished Cambodia can afford.
Sok An appealed to countries who have pushed for an internationally backed tribunal to pledge either cash or legal expertise for the trial. He said he expected the courts to be up and running before the year is out. Pol Pot died in 1998 but most of his top comrades are still alive and living freely in Cambodia after surrendering to the government. Only one of the group's senior leaders, military chief Ta Mok, is in jail. The courts, with a mixture of international and Cambodian judges, will function in some ways like national courts and in other ways like the international tribunals prosecuting crimes against humanity in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
Human rights groups have criticized this unprecedented format, saying it fails to meet international standards of justice. They argue the Cambodian government -- which includes several former Khmer Rouge soldiers, including Prime Minister Hun Sen himself -- would be able to hold sway over proceedings. However, many governments who backed the deal said blocking it would deprive Cambodia's 13 million people of their last chance to bring justice to bear on those responsible for the genocide.
Before work can begin on actually setting up the court, Cambodia's National Assembly must also ratify the deal. Given its general elections at the end of July, this is unlikely before September at the earliest.
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