The curtain appears to be coming down on the surviving architects of Pol Pot's murderous
1975-79 "Killing Fields" regime.
Three United Nations experts left Cambodia last week having been assured by Second
Prime Minister Hun Sen that he would support the arrest of people such as Ieng Sary
and Ke Pauk.
The three experts are looking into the feasibility of an international tribunal against
surviving KR chiefs.
Key players Thailand and the United States are also putting weight behind the UN's
efforts, and all this is dovetailing with Hun Sen's need for international recognition,
and at a time of unparalleled strength for the prime minister when he has effectively
subordinated all opposition to him.
The three-man UN team visited Cambodia and Thailand from Nov 14-22 to "evaluate
the existing evidence and assess the feasibility of bringing Khmer Rouge leaders
"We haven't yet identified any particular obstacles [to a trial]," team
chairman Sir Ninian Stephen, former governor-general of Australia, said Nov 17.
"The short answer," Stephen said, when asked if Hun Sen would support the
arrest of amnestied former KR chiefs such as Ieng Sary and Ke Pauk, "is ëyes'."
The team - which included Mau-ritian former chief justice Rajsoomer Lallah and American
war crimes professor Steven Ratner - interviewed witnesses and perpetrators, reviewed
evidence, and met with government and NGO officials.
They were upbeat in their discussions of several difficulties once thought to make
a KR trial impossible - including political will in Cambodia and abroad.
Hun Sen promised "full cooperation" in arresting any suspect whom an independent
tribunal's prosecutor deemed appropriate, Stephen said.
Political scientist Craig Etcheson, who has worked on KR accountability for years,
said he was not surprised at the premier's willingness, despite Hun Sen being a former
"[A trial] would be the ultimate peak of his career," Etcheson said. "His
whole career has been to bring down the genocidal clique, and they're not down yet."
Scholars say there is little evidence to link Hun Sen to KR crimes, and the UN mandate
would seem to exclude him anyway as he was not a "leader".
Regarding fears that an arrest of Sary would be unfeasible, or set off renewed civil
war, Etcheson countered with the recent case of Nuon Paet.
Paet, a KR cadre suspected of killing three Western tourists in 1994, was arrested
in Phnom Penh in August, with no political or military repercussions."It shows
that they are not invulnerable; they can't keep their guard up 24 hours a day, seven
days a week," Etcheson said.
Three other leaders - Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ta Mok - are in hiding in the
jungle, either in Cambodia's north or more probably in Thailand.
"One aspect, and an important aspect, of any discussions we have [with the Thais]
will relate to the extent to which Thailand is a haven and the extent to which that
haven can cease to be a haven against extradition," Stephen said.
Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Sukhumbhand Paribatra met Stephen in Thailand on Nov
23, Agence France-Presse reported.
Sukhumbhand told Stephen that Thailand preferred a domestic trial to an international
one, and that KR leaders would be arrested as illegal immigrants if in Thailand.
He also promised cooperation with extradition, according to AFP.
The UN experts also met with diplomats from two traditional opponents of Khmer Rouge
trials - France and China - in New York two months ago. Both countries have veto
power in the UN Security Council, but a trial would not necessarily have to be set
up through that body.
Etcheson believed the biggest obstacle to a trial has already been overcome - American
reluctance. "Something like this couldn't happen if the US was opposed."
The UN experts spent several days with Youk Chhang, the director of the Documentation
Center of Cambodia. He showed them documentary evidence - internal KR memos, telegrams,
reports, confessions - and took them to a mass grave site, where they interviewed
survivors and former cadre.
"I think they have reached the heart of Cambodian suffering," said Chhang,
a survivor himself. "The message was very clear to them from the victims and
the perpetrators. The perpetrators are guilty, the victims want justice."
The question of who exactly is guilty "in a sense you might say there were thousands,
many thousands," Stephen said. "On the other hand, look at the top leaders,
5, 10, 15 individuals... Our mandate now is specifically concerned with... KR leaders."
Ratner said the Documentation Center was "a treasure trove" of evidence,
but noted that evidence of crimes committed was different from evidence indicating
individual responsibility, "of which we really don't have an opinion yet...
The process of looking into individual accountability in Cambodia is part of the
process of national reconciliation."
Etcheson believes a case against top leaders will be easy to make, even though evidence
against specific individuals varies.
He said the principle of command responsibility - that leaders are responsible for
crimes committed by subordinates if they knew or should have known what was happening
- should provide ample basis for prosecution.
"Under this principle there is no way for any of the top leaders to escape responsibility."
The experts will now prepare a report - recommending what type of legal mechanism,
if any, should be established for Cambodia - to be presented to the UN in January.
"It all takes a long time to get it up and running," he said. Similar tribunals
in Rwanda and in Bosnia took two years to set up.
Cambodian Human Rights Committee chair Om Yienteng, who consulted with the experts,
said: "It will be a long process."
But, he added, it was about time. "We have been waiting for the tribunal for
20 years already."
Stephen estimated the cost of an international tribunal - which is one option, similiar
to the existing fora in The Hague - at perhaps $40 million per year, paid for by
the international community.
"We are now studying whether the tribunal should be national or international
or a combination of both," Om Yienteng said.