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.