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Petit on 'the ultimate crime'

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A few decades ago, Robert Petit used to wear a T-shirt of the Dead Kennedy's "Holiday

in Cambodia"-a 1980 punk indictment of both Eastern totalitarianism and Western

complacency. Today, he calls it an honor to be one of the two prosecutors charged

with bringing accountability to the Khmer Rouge. It was surely a coincidence.

Looking for evidence. Robert Petit in his office at the ECCC building.

Born in 1961, Petit was raised and educated in Montreal. After eight years working

there as a criminal prosecutor, Petit was tasked with trying Rwanda's infamous Hutu

leaders. In Kigali, his first extended stay outside Canada, Petit discovered "another

reality," and was moved to launch a career in international criminal law.

"This is the essence of being a prosecutor: to accept this job, you accept the

fact you make these decisions. Sometimes they are very hard, sometimes very easy.

The hardest ones are about not prosecuting, and then how you explain that to the

victims; about justifying why you presented the best case, and the judge gave a judgment

that is not satisfying, and trying to explain that to people," he told the Post.

He's worked at war crimes tribunals in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and East Timor, but

says the ECCC is "a different animal." Petit spoke to Cat Barton about

rendering justice and managing expectations.

Is it true that the Cambodian government is attempting to control the ECCC?

I can't speculate. I don't like speculation anyway. This town does a very good job

on its own to generate rumors, and speculations and suppositions-it doesn't need

my help. If, and when, I have something to base an opinion on-facts-then I will.

I've come here to do a job, and do it according to the way I think it should be done.

If I have reason to doubt that this can be achieved, then it will have to be based

on fact, not supposition.

Compared to other trials, is the ECCC more driven to explain what happened?

Not that much more. It is first and foremost about rendering justice, and the worst

thing we could do would be to try and stretch and squeeze and deform this process

for an aim that it is not meant to fulfill. But all these courts have, to a certain

degree, a responsibility to tell history a little bit. They're often well equipped,

better equipped than others, to do this ... But our project is first about rendering

justice for crimes, proving that these crimes happened, and that certain individuals

are responsible. It's not about writing a history book ... We have to be aware that

we should try and make this project as transparent, as comprehensive, as accessible

as possible, but the primary focus is not to tell the story, it's to render justice.

Is the ECCC impaired by high expectations?

Managing expectations of people who have been victimized by the worst crimes in human

kind is always an issue. How do you deliver justice? How do you answer these expectations?

People often want a lot more than these courts can provide ... This is the same in

other courts, victims who come to testify and then ask for a house because theirs

was burnt down. So one of the main things you have to be able to do in these types

of endeavors is that you have to be able to explain coherently, what you are here

to do, what you can't do, to justify your decisions, and certainly, most importantly,

to justify why you did not make a decision or made a negative decision.

What do you think of people who say the ECCC is a waste of time?

Do you have a justice system in England? Do you have things that money would be better

spent on than the justice system? What about treating addicts, building houses for

homeless people? But every society has a justice system because it matters; because

justice, accountability, and the rule of law, is the foundation on which you can

build. If you don't have that, you don't have anything, and eventually the building

will crumble down. So if you don't have that for the worst of crimes then it is useless

to talk about trying to build houses for somebody as someone else will eventually

come and take it away. Because if you can't have justice for genociders who is going

to prevent someone from stealing your cow? Who's going to tell that child growing

up that it is wrong to steal that cow if that child sees that genocider walking around

in the street?

How will the ECCC affect how law is practiced in Cambodia?

In the very best case we can only show how these things should be done. We are not

here to reform the justice system, or Cambodia, or Cambodian society, we are here

to show that it can be done and how it should be done, the rest of it is up to the

politicians, civil society leaders, regular people.

What do you think the nature of the trials will be?

To properly assess the guilt or innocence of anyone that would fall within our jurisdiction

- which is senior leaders or those most responsible for what happened here - you

have to explain what happened here. So you have to give the background; you have

to give the context. Don't forget, our crimes call for evidence of either systematic

or massive widespread crimes. Genocide calls for the definition of a group and its

relation. War crimes call for a state of armed conflict. All these call for evidence:

painting the canvas first and then putting the people in it.

Do you think the word "genocide" is overused in relation to Cambodia?

I think the word "genocide" is bandied about way too much because it does

represent, to me anyway, the ultimate crime. If people are using it within a legal

context, then I think that is wrong. I can understand the need to morally judge something

as genocide, but if you are using it to comment on what has happened here, knowing

that there is a legal process going on, then you're making a pronouncement that you

shouldn't be. It is up to the courts to decide what happened here - it will be, presumably,

up to them to decide what the people were subjected to.

How much direct contact have you had with victims of the Khmer Rouge?

Not enough. But we have not had as many victims come forward as we thought, but hopefully

that will change.

Is there a personal motive for coming here?

I have a job at home, a house at home, I didn't need to come to Cambodia. But to

me this is an honor. You really have the chance to have, hopefully, some significant

input; to hopefully render some justice for people who for 30 years have been waiting

for it, and who deserve it. Their story needs to be told, accountability needs to

be there for these crimes.

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