The Khmer Rouge tribunal seems doomed. Or at least that is what one would think by reading the headlines. The court has weathered a major corruption scandal and persistent criticism of its slow pace and high cost.
Now a battle is being waged again over the judicial independence of the court, with suggestions that political pressure has prevented the proper investigation of cases 003 and 004 and, by implication, is moving the court to a close.
This is nothing new in the world of international justice. Dating back to Nuremberg, a watershed in global justice, international courts have been beset with criticism and controversy.
It’s in the nature of the beast. International tribunals are inherently political, navigating the often conflicting interests of jurists, politicians, states, donors and survivors.
The bottom line is that justice is never perfect: not in the US, not in Europe, not at the International Criminal Court, and certainly not in Cambodia’s courtrooms.
But justice can still be effective. In the midst of all of the controversy about the Khmer Rouge tribunal, people seem to have lost sight of its accomplishments.
The first case, the trial of a former prison commandant who ran the regime’s most important security prison, a place where more than 12,000 people were detained, interrogated, tortured and executed, is widely acknowledged to have been a success. While there were bumps along the road, international standards were upheld and survivors given unprecedented voice.
Cambodians also had a look at an alternative form of justice, something that is important in a country where the courts are notoriously corrupt and politicised.
And there is more to come. Today, the initial hearings in Case Two will begin. This is the big one. For the first time, the surviving senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, Foreign Affairs Minister Ieng Sary, his wife and Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, and Head of State Khieu Samphan will appear in court together to stand trial for their alleged crimes.
It has been more than 30 years in coming.
Among other things, these leaders are indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes that took place from April 17, 1975, to January 6, 1979. Almost a quarter of the Cambodian population perished during this short period.
Many people were executed, while others died of starvation, overwork and illness. This was the Khmer Rouge’s “Super Great Leap Forward”.
Cambodians ask: how did it happen?
Through the work of its investigators and analysts, the court has already begun to help answer this question. Their work is supplemented by civil society, ranging from victims’ participation and outreach efforts to a nation-wide initiative reintroducing genocide education into Cambodia’s schools.
The Closing Order for Case Two gives a taste of what is to come. This 772-page document details how the Khmer Rogue leaders centralised control and operated their machine of terror and death.
They ran a top-down system that imploded from the continual search for enemies, which eventually turned inward as the leaders purged their own ranks while escalating a misguided conflict with Vietnam.
Many Cambodians care deeply about the court. More than 30,000 Cambodians visited the ECCC in 2010, often attending trial sessions. No other international tribunal is thought to have recorded such numbers. Many other Cambodians follow the proceedings on radio or television.
The court is not perfect. And it is absolutely critical to speak out when its independence is threatened.
But such problems should not overshadow the very real achievements of the Khmer Rogue tribunal to date.
Today I look forward to sitting in the public gallery with hundreds of people as the curtains are drawn and four senior Khmer Rouge leaders who escaped justice for years are finally tried.
Alex Hinton is the author of the award-winning Why Did They Kill? Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide and Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights at Rutgers University, Newark. He is now writing a book on the Khmer Rouge tribunal.