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UN: Cambodia Disagrees Over War Crimes Tribunal

  • Kitty McKinsey

The United Nations and Cambodia are still locked in a disagreement over a proposed war crimes trial for the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge, which is accused of killing nearly 2 million Cambodians during its reign of terror in the 1970s. RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey reports from Honolulu in the United States on efforts to find justice for the Khmer Rouge's victims.

HONOLULU, 14 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty years after the end of the genocidal "killing fields" of Pol Pot's Cambodia, the United Nations and Cambodian leaders are trying to find a way to bring surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to trial for alleged crimes against humanity.

The UN has proposed a war-crimes tribunal for Cambodia. Proponents say a trial would set the historical record straight on Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge deadly regime, which is believed to have killed 1.75 million people -- nearly one-fifth of the country's population -- between 1975 and 1979.

The issue came to the fore at the end of 1998, when two high-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders (Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea) defected to the government.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen -- whose cabinet includes many former Khmer Rouge figures -- has given mixed signals on whether he wants a trial. Hun Sen once said he supported a trial for, in his words, "four or five" Khmer Rouge leaders, but more recently he said that he does not trust the UNs intentions.

Siegfried Ramler was an interrogator for the world's first war crimes trials, when surviving Nazi leaders were tried in Nuremberg after World War Two. He says that just as the exposure of Nazi crimes was an important step for Germany in its transition to democracy, Cambodia too can benefit from exposure of its past.

Ramler, who has traveled in Cambodia, spoke to RFE/RL in Honolulu about his conversations with Cambodians:

"Just in speaking to people on the streets and as you met them, virtually you do not find a single family in Cambodia that has not suffered, that has not lost a relative or a member of the family. A trial is an important way of righting the record, of sending a message to the world that Cambodia has come to terms with its history, and it is very important for the victims, for the losses that have been incurred, and it is very important for building a good future for Cambodia."

What is clear is that the Khmer Rouge atrocities still haunt Cambodians -- both inside the country and even in the lands where they have found refuge. One of Pol Pot's victims, a woman now working with fellow refugees in a major U.S. city, spoke to RFE/RL by telephone, but she said she was too terrified to allow her name to be used.

This Cambodian refugee says her mother, three brothers, a sister and her entire extended family were slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge. She says her husband still suffers from flashbacks whenever he sees news on television of any violence.

"So many people suffer so much. I am working with the Cambodian people here. You don't realize that when they were young they lived under the Pol Pot regime, they still have problems here. Until today, some of them are not strong enough, they are still in the mental detention place because of this war. Some of them commit suicide. Some of them sleep and die because of bad dreams."

The refugee woman is referring to a widely reported phenomenon of Cambodians who have died in their sleep, apparently from heart attacks brought on by reliving their traumatic experiences.

It is the fear of stirring up such old traumas that has caused some observers to argue against an international trial for the Khmer Rouge. Dr. Kirsti Oskarsson, a psychiatrist with the International Organization for Migration, is training Cambodian psychiatrists. She told the "Phnom Penh Post" a few months ago that the trial would re-open old wounds that people have learned to live with.

She argued that talking about trauma is a Western way of coping, and doesn't necessarily work in Cambodia. Oskarsson says most Cambodians are Buddhists who believe punishment comes in the next life, not this one.

But the refugee woman now in the U.S., herself a Buddhist, disagrees. She says an international trial could bring a necessary catharsis.

Mike Jendrzejczyk is the director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. He says many Cambodians believe those responsible for the killing fields should be brought to trial.

"Many Cambodians seem to feel very strongly that they must come to terms with their past and that those still alive responsible for those terrible atrocities have to be held accountable if there is to be any long-term reconciliation and peace and justice in Cambodia."

Jendrzejczyk argues that the world has an obligation to the millions of Cambodians who voted for democracy and change in the UN-supervised election in 1993.

Negotiations with the UN over a war-crimes tribunal are scheduled to resume this month. Cambodia has rejected the model of the ad hoc UN tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and insists that the trials take place in Cambodia and with Cambodian judges. The UN wants the tribunal to have more international judges than Cambodian judges and to be under UN control.

Many outsiders have questioned Cambodia's ability to meet international standards of justice. They say Cambodia's judicial system is weak, corrupt and subject to political pressure. Even the speaker of Cambodia's National Assembly has said Cambodia must take into account UN objections to a war-crimes court dominated by Cambodians.