Although it has been nearly thirty years since the Cambodian Khmer Rouge was ousted from power, its leaders have yet to be tried for the human rights atrocities of their Communist regime. One of the most lethal regimes of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of about twenty percent of its population. The United Nations and Cambodia have recently agreed to legal conditions that will allow for such human rights trials to take place. While the development of a specially suited court is significant progress in the pursuit of international justice, ongoing bureaucratic and political debacles prevent the selection of a specific date for the trials.
Until this month, the latest hurdle standing in the way of the trials was the Cambodian Bar Association’s insistence on its right to determine registration fees for foreign attorneys representing the accused. Proposing a $2,700 registration fee, the Association insisted that any interference with this charge would be a violation of Cambodian sovereignty. International judges fought what they considered the unnecessarily elevated charge on the grounds that former Khmer Rouge leaders could use it to their advantage in the trial by arguing that financial limitations prevent them from obtaining adequate council. Such costs would also put an unnecessary burden on volunteer defense attorneys, who would be forced to pay a significant out-of-pocket expense in order to offer their services pro bono.
At the beginning of this month, the monumental last step in the trial negotiations was completed with a settlement on a $500 registration fee, which international judges believe is low enough to prevent financial hardship. The date of the first trial remains uncertain, however, much to the dismay of the international community and the Cambodian people.
Since the Khmer Rouge fell from national office in 1979, the people of Cambodia have grown increasingly impatient to see justice brought to the former Khmer Rouge members. As the Herald Tribune recently quoted one survivor of the Khmer Rouge years, “It comes down to time…We need to use time wisely in order to catch up with the aging Khmer Rouge leaders.” Pol Pot, the leader and mastermind of the Khmer Rouge policies that resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians by starvation and forced labor, died of natural causes almost ten years ago. Ta Mok, his military commander, died last year.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge regional commander, currently remains in power as the Prime Minster of Cambodia; and he has been widely criticized for his violent political strategies, exemplified by a bloody military coup he led in 1997.
The registration fee dispute has been only one in a long string of many minor issues that have stalled progress toward an international trial for the last decade. Agreement on whether to organize a court to try the leaders of the Khmer Rouge was reached only in 2003, at the culmination of five years and eleven rounds of negotiations. Last summer, the UN officially allotted three years for the undertaking; almost a full year of that time has already been spent on bureaucratic hang-ups. The fact that the current Cambodian government is composed of several former Khmer Rouge members has led American newspapers to suggest that such delays may be a case of “foot dragging” on the part of the Cambodian government and its allies. It is interesting to note that China originally opposed trial proposals on the grounds that such matters were the internal affairs of a sovereign nation.
The next step in this process will be a United Nations plenary to agree on rules of the Extraordinary Chambers; and this meeting will take place at the end of May. Since this latest milestone, all sides have publicly stated their commitment to justice; however in the face of continued bureaucratic and political maneuvering, it is unclear just how genuine their commitments are.