Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Justice in Cambodia

There is a powerful and haunting article written by Michael Paterniti in the current issue of GQ. Paterniti describes visiting Cambodia in 2002 and then again more recently as the Special Tribunal for Cambodia was being convened. The first defendant to stand trial is Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, who ran the notorious S-21 torture center at a former school from 1975 to 1979, the years that the Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia. It is now a museum, which Paterniti visited. Only a few individuals survived their incarceration in S-21, described in graphic detail in the article. Paterniti interviewed several survivors and describes in moving terms their attempts to come to terms with why they lived when so many others died.

Paterniti also discusses why it has taken so long for the perpetrators of these crimes to be brought to justice--nearly thirty years. Four other defendants will stand trial next year, but Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in 1998 and escaped trial. The defendants are in their 70s, and have thus far escaped accountability for their crimes. As Paterniti puts it, "When was someone going to pay?" He offers a variety of reasons for the failure to hold the Khmer Rouge accountable:

Everyone had a theory, real or half-baked, about why it had been nearly impossible to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice. For some, American guilt rode high on the list. ...[T]he Americans were loathe to reexamine the sordid details of their eight-year secret bombing of the country ... and were unwilling to accept their role in the destabilization of society that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge. For others, the prime minister, Hun Sen, didn't want his own Khmer Rouge resume dredged up. ...And then the international community didn't seem to have much desire for it, either; being resource-poor and of no geopolitical advantage, Cambodia had nothing to offer. Meanwhile, the money that was earmarked for eventual trials, money that poured in through various NGOs and foreign governments, created a lucrative cottage industry for certain corrupt local officials who were motivated to drag out the process as long as possible.

And yet as time sludged forward, an agreement was finally forged in 2003 between the Cambodian government and the U.N. to inaugurate the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea, or the ECCC. A formal indictment followed in 2007, charging Duch with crimes against humanity as well as war crimes. In addition, the top Khmer Rouge leaders who remained alive were arrested and imprisoned ... But up until Duch took the stand in March of this year to begin the first trial, there were still those who doubted such a day would ever come--and others, mostly those born after 1979, who didn't understand why there should be a trial for these mythical old men at all. Why did it matter? Or: Was it better left forgotten?

Paterniti's article makes it clear why it matters.

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