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Another Judge Quits Khmer Rouge Tribunal

by Joshua Kurlantzick
March 22, 2012

Former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea (C) sits in the court room at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, December 5, 2011. Former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea (C) sits in the court room at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, December 5, 2011. (Nhet Sokheng/ECCC/Courtesy Reuters)


Earlier this week, another of the foreign judges on the Khmer Rouge (KR) tribunal quit: Laurent Kaspar-Ansermet from Switzerland. According to press reports and his own statement, he quit because of continuing interference in the tribunal by his Cambodian counterpart, Judge You Bunleng, who apparently was trying to block the tribunal from investigating and possibly prosecuting any more KR suspects beyond the tiny handful of top leaders already charged.

The KR tribunal is going from bad to worse. Another foreign judge, Siegfried Blunt from Germany, quit last fall, making the same allegations of Cambodian justices interfering to stop any new investigations and possible prosecutions of former KR leaders. Of course, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has long been opposed to any more investigations, or really to the concept of the tribunal at all — he has told people that he essentially wanted to bury the KR period and not look back. Although Hun Sen, a former KR cadre, was low-ranking enough that he never would have been touched by the tribunal, he has many allies who conceivably could have been, and he probably just does not like the concept of the tribunal pushing harder into the past of important figures in Cambodia, a precedent he does not want to set for his own government. Hun Sen and other government leaders’ argument that prosecuting more top KR figures would lead to civil war again in Cambodia is utterly ridiculous; after years of destructive war, no Cambodians are interested in more large-scale conflict, and, in any event, Hun Sen has such tight control of the security forces at this point, and of society, that war is impossible.

For years, I thought the KR tribunal was still worth it, despite its long delays, despite the fact that Pol Pot died in the jungle without any real trial, despite the possibility that many of the top KR leaders were so old that they would never do any real jail time, and despite the significant expense of the process (paid by foreign donors). It might not cure impunity in Cambodia, but it would make a statement, it would reach a broader audience in Cambodia that had not learned about the Pol Pot era, and it would lead to real, important confessions like those of former jailer Kaing Kek Iev (better known as Duch). But now, with the tribunal becoming ever more of a farce, I’m starting to change my mind.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Donald Jameson

    I spent one month traveling around Cambodia in January and February talking to people about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (among other things), I speak Cambodian and have been visiting the country at least once per year for the last seven years and so am able to converse easily with people at all levels of society. Virtually no one outside a select group of people in Phnom Penh has any interest in the KR Tribunal. Many do not even know who is on trial and for what. Most state up front that they have no interest in the trial, pay no attention to it and do not see it as relevant to their own lives. While in Phnom Penh, I also attended two sessions of the tribunal, including the final sentencing hearing for Toul Sleng torture and killing center director Duch. There is an air of unreality about these proceedings, as if they were taking place on another planet, with not connection to Cambodia and its current problems concerns. In addition, there is now a confrontation between the UN management of the Tribunal and the Cambodian government over additional cases numbered 003 and 004, leading the recent resignations of two international judges because of government interference in the investigation process. There is a huge gap in understanding between the international community and the Cambodian government on the nature of the trial process and it is questionable whether even the current case against three top KR leaders will ever be brought to a conclusion given their advanced age and likely death or incapacitation before this lengthy process can be completed. In short, the KR Tribunal has been a failure and a huge waste of resources that could have been used for other purposes much better suited to Cambodias needs at its current stage of development. Don Jameson

  • Posted by Ken Wasserman

    The mixed tribunal of both UN and Cambodian judges and other staff, was the best that could be organized before the International Criminal Court was legally constituted. It seems to me that Cambodia’s desire to ramp down on increasing the jurisdiction of the KR tribunal – particularly after charges against the three top KR leaders have already been brought – should be respected.

    Truth and Reconciliation proceedings have been successfully undertaken elsewhere and have brought decent closure to countries’ atrocities. The desire of a Buddhist country like Cambodia to accept its past and move on in its own way is not unreasonable.

  • Posted by Kori Cicero

    I totally agree with the previous comment. I don’t know Cambodia so well or speak Khmer, but I’ve been studying the KR genocide anytime I had the chance for the past 5 years as a Poli Sci student, I kept linking all the free choice essays to war crimes and their differences / similarities. From the outside you just have all these facts and master the story, and think this Tribunal is godsent but since one month I’m in Cambodia I see all this as greatly irrelevant. I’m all in for international justice, providing funds to judge and casting the spotlight on the atrocities comitted by KR cadres, but the absurdity of all this is twofold: there is no limit to corruption here and people with money will always get away with it, and the people just don’t care -except for a real tiny minority we seem to always read about in the press-. It would have been so much more gratifying to invest loads of cash in quality education (closely monitored of course) to create a new type of Khmer elite, not just related to affluent parents who don’t give a d*** about civil society. These young people would have eventually decided to rewrite history themselves (in 10, 15 years time, why hurry ? The main leaders are dead or a foot in the tomb anyway). When even your neighbor or your father could have been a prison guard or a truck driver to deport people to starvation in fields or death in prisons, and you make 70 USD / month, how can you worry about justice ?

    What I see is the UN again barging in a country, knowing their fact sheets yes, but not adapting and not taking time to see the reality of a country and its people. What I see is Occidental remorse of not having done anything or doing the wrong things from 1975 to 79. What I see is the socialist idealism of Europe put scales on their eyes, and now trying to make up for it. What I see is the US interventionism regretful of all the puppet power they helped to artificially instore in this country from the 70’s to the 90’s and seeing that it didn’t come up with the expected results. Sad story of wasted money, and no respect for the Khmer people and their free will.

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