A Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) conference has produced a strong call for a
"truth commission" to gather evidence on Khmer Rouge crimes - but far less
support for trials of those responsible.
In the key-note discussion paper
presented to the conference, two international law experts urged
"accountability" be laid for crimes committed during the KR's 1975-79
However, they recommended that the "net" be cast no wider than
around senior KR leaders and the commanders of torture and execution
The discussion paper, by Americans Jason Abrams and Steven
Ratner, strongly recommends the "non-prosecutorial" option of a "truth
At the same time, it offered some support for other options
such as international or national trials.
The Aug 21-22 conference in
Phnom Penh, closed to the press, was held to discuss the international laws
broken during the KR period and possible forms of redress.
Cambodia's co-Prime Ministers addressed the conference, with Second Premier Hun
Sen strongly calling for an international tribunal to judge senior KR
"This is not about politics, it is about justice. If we cannot
bring the Khmer Rouge to justice for killing millions of people, then there is
no point in speaking about human rights in Cambodia," he said.
proposed that Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and other members of the KR
hierarchy be tried under an international tribunal. To ensure that the trial is
fair, he said, Pol Pot should be given a chance to select the best lawyer in the
He believed such a tribunal would set an example to prevent more
acts of genocide in other countries, and would "weigh heavier" than a trial in a
First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh told the
conference: "The Royal Government is determined to bring those responsible for
the perpetration of these crimes against the Cambodian people to face justice,"
The conference was hosted by the CGP, a two-year project funded by the
US State Department to research and document KR crimes. It is not charged with
identifying and gathering evidence of specific perpetrators and
In their key-note paper, Abrams (a State Department consultant)
and Ratner (of the University of Texas School of Law ), concluded there was
considerable evidence of KR crimes.
They found the KR regime had prima
facie culpability for: genocidal crimes against Chams, Vietnamese, Buddhists and
other groups; crimes against humanity, including murder; war crimes, in
connection with their war with Vietnam; and breaches of international and
The paper urged "accountability" for the crimes -
describing it as a "moral, legal, and political imperative for Cambodia and the
international community" - and rejected suggestions that revisiting the KR
period would cause more harm than good to Cambodia.
However, it suggested
a "more selective form of accountability" because many former KR cadre, senior
and junior, had since returned to civilian life.
inherent in calling forth all those who committed atrocities may be more than
Cambodia can handle at this time," the paper's authors remarked.
went on to recommend that such accountability be limited to KR leaders "who had
a policymaking responsibility over the crimes" of the KR regime, and others such
as torture and execution camp commanders.
By focussing on "a select group
of participants in particularly atrocious acts," Cambodians would get "a sense
of identity of those most guilty for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge".
report added, however, that: "Even such a narrow casting of the net could have
destabilizing effects in Cambodia if it involves an examination into the
activities of senior [current] governmental officials or other powerful elements
The paper examined possible options to lay
- A case before the International Court of Justice, which the paper did not
recommend. It said only the country of Cambodia - not individual KR leaders
could be taken to the court. While such a case might pressure the Cambodian
government to prosecute KR leaders, countries which supported the KR in certain
periods would likely veto the court's hearing of the case.
- International Criminal Tribunals, which the paper endorsed "in principle"
but pointed out several obstacles. They included the need to gain strong
international support for such tribunals, and a likely lack of effectiveness in
physically bringing KR leaders to trial. Cambodian cooperation might also not be
forthcoming, given that senior government officials - former KR cadre who led
subsequent governments or other officials who allied themselves to the KR to
fight Vietnam - could also be indicted.
- National Tribunals. The paper's authors expressed this option would be
accepted, but acknowledged considerable problems with ensuring the Cambodian
justice provided fair trials. Also, although Cambodia was obliged by
international law to hold trials of those accused of genocide, "it may well
shirk this duty as well as any other demands for accountability. As with
international prosecutions, domestic trials would involve governmental officials
and others in positions of power".
- A non-prosecutorial "truth commission" - the author's most
strongly-recommended option. Compomising a combination of foreign and Cambodian
commissioners, such a body could be charged with gathering "detailed,
authoritative and unbiased accounting" of KR crimes.
"A commission would set the record clear for future generations of Cambodians
so that none could doubt the enormity of the atrocities," the paper's authors
"A commission could either name offenders or refrain from doing so,
although we favor the former for purposes of full accounting."
commission could lay the groundwork for future prosecutions.
- Civil lawsuits, which the paper said could be possible in two ways. The
first was by individual victims who could identify individual perpretrators,
though there were limitations to this such as the fact that "courts typically
need to have a defendant present in order for such a suit to proceed." Secondly,
the Cambodian government could file suits to retrieive some of the monetary
assets currently held by the KR, though this would require considerable support
from countries were such assets might be held.
Jason Abrams, speaking at a press conference Aug 22, said he and colleague
Ratner remained hopeful of prosecutions of KR under the Cambodian justice
"We did feel that ultimately this would be the preferred approach
for prosecuting the KR and do believe that with international assistance and
given enough time the Cambodian national courts may indeed prove to be an
effective forum," said Abrams.
But Ratner agreed that the justice system
"is simply not in shape now" and that a truth commission remained the best and
most "visible" option for accountability.