Justice for the killing fields

October 14, 2004

THE TOP headline last week from Cambodia was the surprise announcement by King Norodom Sihanouk, its monarch for much of the last six decades, that he plans to abdicate. The mercurial 81-year-old king - often ill and ensconced in a palatial Beijing guesthouse - survived World War II, his country's independence struggle with France, massive covert U.S. bombing, one of history's most horrifying reigns of terror under the radical Maoists known as the Khmer Rouge, invasion by Vietnam, and years of internecine political warfare that still afflicts Cambodia. In keeping with the latter, confusion immediately rose over how to choose the king's successor - though one of his sons, Prince Norodom Sihamoni, soon emerged as the favorite.

But with all that, the really important news from Cambodia last week had little directly to do with its king and everything to do with healing its deep, festering national wounds: The Cambodian Parliament approved a pact with the United Nations to bring before an international tribunal surviving Khmer Rouge leaders for their acts of genocide more than 25 years ago. During their rule from 1975 to 1979, an estimated quarter of Cambodia's population - at least 1.7 million people - were executed or starved, worked or tortured to death. More than 19,500 Khmer Rouge "killing fields" - mass graves - have been uncovered in the tiny Southeast Asian land.

The Cambodia-U.N. accord has been criticized because Cambodian and international judges will serve together, with Cambodians in the majority. This contrasts with the completely foreign judicial panel in, say, the Yugoslav war-crimes trials, and there are fears that these trials' legitimacy will be compromised by Cambodia's corrupt judiciary. This is valid, but every verdict will require the assent of at least one foreign judge. And put simply, Cambodia cannot wait for perfect justice. This tribunal has been much too long delayed. Cambodia first asked for the U.N. help seven years ago - and it has been three decades since the Khmer Rouge first marched into the capital of Phnom Penh and exiled virtually all its residents to death in the countryside.

The United States and other Western powers, which have pressed for the trials, should quickly ensure the United Nations' share of their cost (estimated at half of $57 million over three years) so they can begin as soon as possible. Urgency stems from the simple fact that former Khmer Rouge leaders are old enough that they may die before justice can be served. Their top leader - Pol Pot, the brutal "Brother No. 1" - has been dead since 1998, but most other Khmer Rouge leaders still live freely in Cambodia with an incredible degree of impunity.

In the last decade, particularly due to research conducted by an independent body in Phnom Penh, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, more Cambodians have been bearing witness to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. But these brutalities cannot be fully laid to rest - and Cambodia's quest for stability and democracy cannot be fulfilled - until Cambodians and the world see the Khmer Rouge finally brought to justice.

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