Thirty years after the Khmer Rouge slaughtered an estimated 1.7 million people, Cambodians have received a small measure of justice. A joint Cambodian-United Nations tribunal recently found Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity – the first conviction of a leading Khmer Rouge figure.
Duch, 67, was sentenced to 35 years for supervising the barbaric torture and murder of about 14,000 people at Phnom Penh’s infamous Tuol Sleng prison. The tribunal’s decision to reduce Duch’s sentence to 19 years, given the 16 years he had already spent in prison, was bittersweet. I understand why many victims and their families were disappointed by the length of Duch’s sentence – no amount of punishment can make them whole. But the sentence still ensures that Duch will spend most, if not all, of his remaining years behind bars.
Duch’s conviction is a milestone for Cambodia. But the work of the tribunal is hardly finished, and the stakes for the Cambodian people are too high for the international community to walk away now. The next set of cases will be more complex and politically charged, testing the will of Cambodia and the international community. The four most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders await the dock: former president Khieu Samphan; the group’s chief ideologue Nuon Chea; foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith. These are some of the architects of the brutalities committed against the Cambodian people during the disastrous rule of the Khmer Rouge.
But on the cusp of these trials, the tribunal’s future is uncertain. With Duch’s conviction, some contributors have been tempted to declare victory and go home. Donor support is flagging, and a $7 million funding gap has already emerged for the current fiscal year. Last April, Cambodian staff at the court stopped receiving their salaries as the money ran out until Japanese donors stepped up in early July. Moving forward with what one United States expert rightly calls the “Nuremberg Trial of Cambodia” will be difficult unless the tribunal is properly funded.
The United States, which has long championed bringing the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, is leading by example, raising its contribution to $5 million this year. Our support comes with strings attached. The US is committed to ensuring transparency and accountability at the tribunal, and will continue to press for the independence that the tribunal must enjoy if it is to advance the cause of justice in Cambodia.
As I discussed with Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, for months prior to the establishment of the innovative joint tribunal, if the Cambodian people are to come to grips with their own history, there must be accountability for the perpetrators of genocide. Half of all Cambodians are aged under 20, so Duch’s trial provided the first authoritative introduction to the Khmer Rouge period for millions of citizens of the Kingdom. Some participated directly as parties to the proceedings, tens of thousands of others attended in person, and many more followed along intently on TV, radio, or the internet.
The tribunal has also made important contributions to the historical record, unearthing facts about Cambodia’s civil war that will have implications far beyond any future cases. And it could serve as a model for the Cambodian people of what impartial judicial proceedings might look like.
Cambodia’s courts suffer from a number of institutional and organisational shortcomings, and judicial proceedings are all too often politicized.
Strengthening Cambodia’s judiciary is a long-term undertaking, but the Khmer Rouge tribunal can accelerate the process of reform by demonstrating the virtues of judicial independence, fairness, and due process of law. The more Cambodians witness a higher standard of justice, the more they will be inclined to demand it in their own judicial system. If the tribunal can help catalyse domestic judicial reforms, that success would be among its most significant and lasting legacies.
Sustained international support is vital not only to ensure the continuance of the tribunal, but also to enhance its effectiveness. Our support, and that of other leading democratic nations, will make a powerful statement about the international community’s commitment to seeking justice for all those who are victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Duch trial was a historic, if long delayed, first step along that path for Cambodia. Let’s help Cambodia’s people see the job through and ensure that real justice can be served for the victims of the “killing fields”.
John Kerry is chairman of the United States senate foreign relations committee. In April 2000, Kerry helped broker a compromise during stalled negotiations between Prime Minister Hun Sen and the United Nations over the trial format of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia.