The Khmer Rouge tribunal is still months—or maybe years—away from calling its first witness, but some observers are already saying it could become a model for war-torn countries the world over.
The concept of a mixed tribunal of Cambodian and international judges could be used to try defendants for offenses in countries like Sierra Leone and East Timor, say legal experts.
Hans Corell, the UN legal expert in charge of negotiating the Khmer Rouge tribunal with the Cambodian government, has already said publicly his efforts here might be delayed so he can put together a tribunal in Sierra Leone, a former British colony wracked by civil war over the last decade. East Timor was the scene of massacres in 1999 when voters there elected to break free of Indonesia.
The Khmer Rouge law was born out of a compromise on several fronts, US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann has said. China, which supported the Khmer Rouge, refused to let a tribunal law pass in the UN Security Council. There was also some concern that the UN’s war crimes court in the Hague, Netherlands, might not have jurisdiction because what happened in Cambodia was arguably not a threat to international stability.
The result was the current compromise, which calls for a five-judge panel—three Cambodian and two international judges—to try Cambodians on their own soil. Now others are looking at the set-up.
Thousands were slaughtered when Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1976 and again when pro-Indonesia militias attempted to disrupt the 1999 UN-sponsored referendum in which East Timor’s population voted to break away from Indonesia.
Trials for some pro-militia leaders accused of the 1999 massacres have already started, but some have called for a full-fledged war crimes tribunal to be convened.
Not everyone is so sanguine about the prospects of Cambodia’s tribunal setting international precedents.
“The problems of each countries differ,” Cambodian co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath said Wednesday. “The Cambodian war crimes tribunal would be very different from a trial in Sierra Leone because Cambodia is more or less a Buddhist nation, and we tend to forgive. We cannot forget, but we have the capacity for forgiveness.”
Francisco Siemenes, secretary-general of the East Timorese Red Cross, said the chaos and immediacy of the massacres in that country would also complicate a war crimes tribunal.
“Most people do not want to bring the former militia members to court because we are trying to push for reconciliation—we want to create peace in the country,” he said Wednesday at an international Red Cross/Red Crescent meeting in Phnom Penh.
Wiedemann says Cambodia’s tribunal law could still make a difference in international law and relations.
“The international community needs it, frankly,” Wiedemann said.