Victory for justice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 12:00am

DETAILS of yesterday's agreement reached in Phnom Penh between the United Nations and the Cambodian Government remain unclear.

But whatever the agreed mechanism for bringing Khmer Rouge criminals to justice, the deal ends months of deadlock, which had reached yet another low point on Friday when the UN received a letter from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen indicating a move away from the formula the two sides had been discussing. Earlier, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had warned the Cambodian leader that the UN was ready to wash its hands of any tribunal Mr Hun Sen might set up independently. The message was blunt and clear: the UN did not accept that Cambodian justice would be fair.

Had the delicate negotiations collapsed irretrievably, it would have represented yet another tragedy in a long line that has marked Cambodian history since the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 and established a nightmarish agrarian collective. Pol Pot's twisted vision of utopia was to create anarchy and terror in the country for four years, when the regime finally imploded, riven by paranoia and driven from power by the Vietnamese military.

Now, at last, the Cambodian people have the opportunity to confront the legacy of this tragic episode and to see justice done to those remaining who were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people, and the barbaric torture and starvation of many millions more. United States Senator John Kerry summed up the wishes of millions when he said: 'This will hopefully be a beginning of the last chapter of the process of accountability.' This is certainly to be hoped; but a painful process is still to be endured.

Mr Hun Sen's critics charge that he has tried to protect former rebels now in government, and those living freely under defection deals that brought him to power. What is crucial, therefore, is that the tribunal does not allow any political capital to be made by any side. For this reason alone some international prosecutors are a necessity. Without the global community's imprimatur on the trial's process, the effort of prosecution will be worthless.

Yet a just trial can draw a line under the Khmer Rouge's obscene regime and will have implications far beyond the borders of Cambodia. It will be a clear warning to all perpetrators of evil that they will, eventually, be held accountable for their deeds.