Khmer Rouge Tribunals: A First Step

Experts see Cambodian verdict as overdue but essential

In New York on December 7, 2010, Sichan Siv explains Cambodians' disappointment with the first Khmer Rouge conviction. (1 min., 43 sec.)

NEW YORK, December 7, 2010 - The UN-backed war crimes tribunals in Cambodia signify the start to a long healing process, said panelists at an Asia Society discussion about the first case heard by this unique court.

Heather Ryan, a monitor for the Khmer Rouge tribunal with the International Justice Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said recovery in post-conflict situations must be multi-pronged.

"A court can serve certain functions and can help a society progress in certain ways, but it can't do everything. That's why courts have been most effective when they have been accompanied by other mechanisms... that give people an opportunity to tell their stories, to meet with their neighbors, that talk about the impact of the crimes on a broader range of people."

Experts gathered at Asia Society to discuss the first conviction of a member of the Khmer Rouge—the brutal regime that ruled Cambodia 30 years ago and decimated a quarter of its population. A documentary, Cambodia: A Quest for Justice was shown, which details the lives of two men: a survivor of the "killing fields"; the other, the Khmer Rouge prison warden, Kaing Guek Eav, commonly known as Duch.

The panel included producers Andi Gitow and Susan Farkas, who is also the chief of the Radio and Television Service at the UN, Sichan Siv, former US Ambassador to the UN, and Benny Widyono, the UN-Secretary-General's Representative in Cambodia from 1994 to 1997.

On July 26, the court found 67-year-old Duch guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes for overseeing the torture and killing of thousands of prisoners. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison- a sentence later reduced to 19 years for time already served.

Siv said many Cambodians are disappointed by the verdict.

"What did he get? Thirty years, minus the years that he has already been incarcerated," he said. "We have five or six people being brought to trial. Not one of them will receive the death penalty. If you kill my mother, my brother, my sister, my neighbors, my friends, and two million of my compatriots, I want you dead. It's very simple."

Ryan acknowledged the court's shortcomings, including its cost of nearly $60 million—money that many feel would be better spent on improving the lives of ordinary Cambodians. There is also the perception that the Cambodian government is protecting former Khmer Rouge members from prosecution. Nevertheless, Ryan said the tribunal is necessary for the country.

"The court is making an important contribution in terms of generating an interest among Cambodians in what happened during that period of time and in how that could happen in Cambodia, where Cambodians were responsible for killing other Cambodians in such a horrific way," Ryan said. "It is an interesting contribution to the progress of international justice."

Reported by Ben Linden