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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Genocide seminar calls for "commission of truth"

Genocide seminar calls for "commission of truth"

A Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) conference has produced a strong call for a

"truth commission" to gather evidence on Khmer Rouge crimes - but far less

support for trials of those responsible.

In the key-note discussion paper

presented to the conference, two international law experts urged

"accountability" be laid for crimes committed during the KR's 1975-79


However, they recommended that the "net" be cast no wider than

around senior KR leaders and the commanders of torture and execution


The discussion paper, by Americans Jason Abrams and Steven

Ratner, strongly recommends the "non-prosecutorial" option of a "truth


At the same time, it offered some support for other options

such as international or national trials.

The Aug 21-22 conference in

Phnom Penh, closed to the press, was held to discuss the international laws

broken during the KR period and possible forms of redress.

Both of

Cambodia's co-Prime Ministers addressed the conference, with Second Premier Hun

Sen strongly calling for an international tribunal to judge senior KR


"This is not about politics, it is about justice. If we cannot

bring the Khmer Rouge to justice for killing millions of people, then there is

no point in speaking about human rights in Cambodia," he said.


proposed that Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and other members of the KR

hierarchy be tried under an international tribunal. To ensure that the trial is

fair, he said, Pol Pot should be given a chance to select the best lawyer in the


He believed such a tribunal would set an example to prevent more

acts of genocide in other countries, and would "weigh heavier" than a trial in a

Cambodian court.

First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh told the

conference: "The Royal Government is determined to bring those responsible for

the perpetration of these crimes against the Cambodian people to face justice,"

The conference was hosted by the CGP, a two-year project funded by the

US State Department to research and document KR crimes. It is not charged with

identifying and gathering evidence of specific perpetrators and


In their key-note paper, Abrams (a State Department consultant)

and Ratner (of the University of Texas School of Law ), concluded there was

considerable evidence of KR crimes.

They found the KR regime had prima

facie culpability for: genocidal crimes against Chams, Vietnamese, Buddhists and

other groups; crimes against humanity, including murder; war crimes, in

connection with their war with Vietnam; and breaches of international and

Cambodian law.

The paper urged "accountability" for the crimes -

describing it as a "moral, legal, and political imperative for Cambodia and the

international community" - and rejected suggestions that revisiting the KR

period would cause more harm than good to Cambodia.

However, it suggested

a "more selective form of accountability" because many former KR cadre, senior

and junior, had since returned to civilian life.

"The divisiveness

inherent in calling forth all those who committed atrocities may be more than

Cambodia can handle at this time," the paper's authors remarked.


went on to recommend that such accountability be limited to KR leaders "who had

a policymaking responsibility over the crimes" of the KR regime, and others such

as torture and execution camp commanders.

By focussing on "a select group

of participants in particularly atrocious acts," Cambodians would get "a sense

of identity of those most guilty for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge".


report added, however, that: "Even such a narrow casting of the net could have

destabilizing effects in Cambodia if it involves an examination into the

activities of senior [current] governmental officials or other powerful elements

of society.

The paper examined possible options to lay


  • A case before the International Court of Justice, which the paper did not

    recommend. It said only the country of Cambodia - not individual KR leaders

    could be taken to the court. While such a case might pressure the Cambodian

    government to prosecute KR leaders, countries which supported the KR in certain

    periods would likely veto the court's hearing of the case.

  • International Criminal Tribunals, which the paper endorsed "in principle"

    but pointed out several obstacles. They included the need to gain strong

    international support for such tribunals, and a likely lack of effectiveness in

    physically bringing KR leaders to trial. Cambodian cooperation might also not be

    forthcoming, given that senior government officials - former KR cadre who led

    subsequent governments or other officials who allied themselves to the KR to

    fight Vietnam - could also be indicted.

  • National Tribunals. The paper's authors expressed this option would be

    accepted, but acknowledged considerable problems with ensuring the Cambodian

    justice provided fair trials. Also, although Cambodia was obliged by

    international law to hold trials of those accused of genocide, "it may well

    shirk this duty as well as any other demands for accountability. As with

    international prosecutions, domestic trials would involve governmental officials

    and others in positions of power".

  • A non-prosecutorial "truth commission" - the author's most

    strongly-recommended option. Compomising a combination of foreign and Cambodian

    commissioners, such a body could be charged with gathering "detailed,

    authoritative and unbiased accounting" of KR crimes.

"A commission would set the record clear for future generations of Cambodians

so that none could doubt the enormity of the atrocities," the paper's authors


"A commission could either name offenders or refrain from doing so,

although we favor the former for purposes of full accounting."


commission could lay the groundwork for future prosecutions.

  • Civil lawsuits, which the paper said could be possible in two ways. The

    first was by individual victims who could identify individual perpretrators,

    though there were limitations to this such as the fact that "courts typically

    need to have a defendant present in order for such a suit to proceed." Secondly,

    the Cambodian government could file suits to retrieive some of the monetary

    assets currently held by the KR, though this would require considerable support

    from countries were such assets might be held.

Jason Abrams, speaking at a press conference Aug 22, said he and colleague

Ratner remained hopeful of prosecutions of KR under the Cambodian justice


"We did feel that ultimately this would be the preferred approach

for prosecuting the KR and do believe that with international assistance and

given enough time the Cambodian national courts may indeed prove to be an

effective forum," said Abrams.

But Ratner agreed that the justice system

"is simply not in shape now" and that a truth commission remained the best and

most "visible" option for accountability.



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