It’s easy to collect enough damning evidence on the Khmer Rouge to write a history book, a panel of experts told more than 100 people gathered at the Foreign Correspondents Club Wednesday night. But mounting a legal case against them is a different story.
As Cambodia awaits a panel of UN experts to arrive next week and attempt to hammer out a plan to try those who led the brutal regime, documentarian Helen Jarvis and genocide researchers Steve Heder and Craig Etcheson said serious questions remain unanswered. Of the three legal areas of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the least palpable evidence exists that Khmer Rouge leaders committed genocide.
Described by Etcheson as “a demonstrated intent to kill all or parts” of national, racial or religious protected groups, experts agree that even after years of research and documentation, genocide is difficult to prove.
“One searches in vain for evidence of a plan or policy to eliminate certain groups” like the Muslim Chams, ethnic Chinese or Buddhist monks, Heder said.
He said he doubts that researchers will ever find the “smoking gun” that directly links specific leaders to their well-known elimination policies. “How we connect the rather minimal evidence at the top to the widespread policy at the bottom is still rather a mystery.”
He said the evidence is much stronger on war crimes and crimes against humanity, because reliable documents show that Khmer Rouge leaders ordered the deaths of military and civilian prisoners and members of their own party.
Because of the difficulties, it remains to be seen who will be on “the list” of those indicted, Etcheson said. Finding middle ground between the minimalist approach of trying just a few and the maximalist approach of incarcerating tens of thousands—as has been done in Rwanda—will be a “struggle,” he said.
But he added that despite the current debate over the makeup of the tribunal, he is optimistic that like in the international Rwandan court, judges from different countries will be able to put cultural differences aside and achieve consensus.