After nearly three years, Peter Foster, the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s UN spokesman, is to step down on Friday before beginning work at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon at The Hague in the Netherlands. He spoke to Douglas Gillison on Wednesday about his time as the court’s longest-serving UN official.
Q: Speaking for only one-half of a court must have made things complicated. What was that like?
A: Very complicated. When they look back at the history of the court, they’ll have a lot of lessons learned, good and bad. I think one of the bad lessons learned is this split administration. It makes it very difficult to structure work within the different sections and it makes it very confusing for the press and for the outsiders to know if there are two sides or one side. So we did our best at public affairs to present ourselves as one voice and I think we successfully did that most of the time. But, as everyone knows, when there were very tense issues, with the Bar Association, with others, and there was a clear difference of opinion between the national and the international side, then it became difficult to work as a single unit when you’re speaking for one half of the court. It’s not an ideal situation. It’s not something I’ve been involved in in my previous missions, and it’s not something I would want to be facing again.
Q: I imagine the difficulties to your work included explaining the delays and the complexity of the trials.
A: In terms of delays, that was very frustrating because the people of Cambodia have been waiting 30 years. So every extra day that it takes is added on to those 30 years. It seems like it’s taking forever. Whereas for me and everyone else who arrived, we came here in February 2006. We look at February till now, and it’s incredible progress. We’ve come a long, long way…. We need to explain exactly how the court works, and we have to do it at a level that people understand. We found when we actually go to the villages and explain how things are working, people are receptive to it, they can understand what it is that we mean. But it’s getting that message out there to cover everybody because the radio and television personalities, the local ones in particular, and the call-in shows are really expressing a lot of frustration because people don’t understand. I think it’ll be a challenge, certainly for my successor and maybe for the rest of the existence of the court.
Q: Do you regret that the trials didn’t start during your time here?
A: I’m disappointed that I’m not going to be able to see the first one happen. Certainly, after three years I hoped that I would be able to see the first trial start. This is my first court so I guess, like a lot of people, I had expectations about how quickly things could happen and those expectations ran up against reality pretty quickly. Lawyers and judges and legal processes are far more complex than I could have imagined. So yes, I’m disappointed I’m not going to be able to see that. But on the other hand, as I say, the fact that I was here when they were still laying bricks and I leave just at the moment when they’re about to announce the first trial date and we have five in detention, that’s a lot of progress and I’m proud that I’m associated with what I’m sure will be an important chapter in Cambodian history.
Q: You came to Cambodia first as a UN Volunteer during Untac. What brought you back?
A: In 1993, I was a district electoral supervisor so I was with the elections. That title didn’t really mean anything. Everybody that came in to work for the electoral side had that title. I was at Sisophon up in Banteay Meanchey, which at the time was the front line between the Khmer Rouge, Funcinpec and the State of Cambodia armies. Sisophon itself would have shells lobbed at it and over it as the election day approached to try to intimidate the population. Our biggest work was with the refugees on the border in Poipet. We were bringing them into Sisophon, giving them their ID cards and then making sure they got back to their homes…. It was a result of that job that I decided to join the United Nations permanently and leave my previous job, which was as a television screen writer, and I joined the UN shortly after that and have been with them ever since. So when the opportunity to come back to Cambodia how many years later came about, I couldn’t turn it down.