Effort needed to heal the scars of Cambodia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2007, 12:00am

A measure of guarded realism is necessary over the forthcoming trials of suspects accused of genocide in Cambodia. The legal framework agreed to yesterday by Cambodian and foreign judges is sieve-like, Prime Minister Hun Sen's government has been dragging its feet on the process and the crimes are three decades old.

Under such circumstances, the UN-backed tribunal is unlikely to fulfil its aim of providing the reconciliation that Cambodians need to move beyond the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. But it is at least an effort to fill that void. How successful it will be after prosecutors bring their cases will be determined by the degree to which the process has by then become flawed or merely symbolic.

That power rests in the hands of Mr Hun Sen, who, through the year that has already passed in the three-year life of the court, has proven unco-operative. Wrangling over details that should have been straightforward auger poorly for proceedings.

The prime minister controls Cambodia's judiciary, and it is not in his interests to have an independent tribunal on his doorstep. All of the Cambodian judges participating have been chosen by him and are used to following his instructions.

Embarrassments for Mr Hun Sen are likely as a result of evidence. He and many in his government were Khmer Rouge members. China, one of Cambodia's biggest aid donors, was a staunch Khmer Rouge supporter.

Time is short. Just two years remain before the funding runs out. Although the framework for the process has been agreed to, a convoluted series of procedures lie ahead before suspects appear before judges. Those accused are of advanced age and most are in poor health; Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died in 1998 and the reputed mastermind of the killings, Ta Mok, last July.

Any number of procedural obstacles could be used to further block the tribunal. Nonetheless, there will be trials, and while they may not properly heal Cambodia by leading to national reconciliation, every effort has to be made by foreign participants to ensure that a footing along that path is attained.