Genocide experts and a government spokesman this week suggested that alternatives exist to a proposed UN-sponsored tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders on charges of crimes against humanity.
The suggestions came in response to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Dec 1 comments to Asiaweek magazine that a Cambodian court trial supported by international assistance would be preferable to a UN tribunal.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith also clarified Hun Sen’s comments, saying that the prime minister was expressing concern for the complexity of a UN-sponsored tribunal when he said he told UN officials that it was “impossible.”
“Maybe he wanted to say that all the cases would be complicated and maybe the Cambodian courts would be easier,” Khieu Kanharith explained on Tuesday. “But I don’t think he meant ‘impossible.’”
Hun Sen last month met with three UN legal experts to discuss his support for a UN-sponsored tribunal. The prime minister along with his then-coalition partner, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, last year wrote to the UN to request the world body’s help in bringing to justice “those persons responsible for the genocide and crimes against humanity during the rule of the Khmer Rouge.”
The UN experts’ recommendation on possibilities for a UN-sponsored tribunal is expected in January.
Khieu Kanharith expressed confidence that Cambodian courts could be considered neutral for smaller players in the regime.
However, he said an international court would help avoid politicizing the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders who are higher up the ladder of responsibility for the killing and negligence.
“The masterminds of the genocide must be tried by the international court,” the secretary of state for information said.
But he also expressed concern that the process of examination may not be worth the painful emotions a tribunal may cause.
“This is Cambodia. This is between Cambodians. Sometimes we need to heal ourselves,” said Khieu Kanharith, who survived the Khmer Rouge’s brutal 1975-78 Democratic Kampuchea regime that is blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians. “That’s why digging up past wounds may not be very good for us.”
Cambodia historian Stephen Heder wrote by e-mail from London that Hun Sen’s comments represent an attempt by the government to maintain as much political control as possible over a tribunal.
Key to Cambodian political control over a tribunal would be holding it in Phnom Penh, Heder said.
“The trick, and the rub, is to get the international community to pay for something that is in Cambodia, but up to international standards,” Heder wrote.
A genocide researcher, who asked not to be identified, said this week that a tribunal similar to Germany’s Nazi war trials in Nuremberg would be “the path of least resistance.”
Such a trial, with the participation of key nations, would set a tribunal in Phnom Penh under Cambodian law and outside the auspices of the UN. “This appears to be what Hun Sen has in mind,” the researcher said.
However, the researcher noted that Hun Sen’s words, “international assistance,” leaves much open to interpretation.
Asked Thursday if the international community would support a Cambodian court trial, the UN secretary-general’s personal representative to Cambodia, Lakhan Mehrotra, responded only that the UN is making its official recommendation on a plan of action.