Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Justice delayed: Cambodian trials

Three decades after a Vietnamese invasion unseated the most murderous regime in the past half century, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, trials for a few high-level Khmer Rouge functionaries have finally begun. A good background article appears in the current Harper's magazine, and the New York Times offers good ongoing coverage,including articles about the limits of the tribunal, lower-level KR functionaries, and, most recently, the apology by SL-21's notorious commandant, Duch.

One key question in all this: what is the purpose of these trials, and who benefits?

Is justice 30 years delayed still better than no justice at all, especially since the KR's leader, Pol Pot, has been dead for some years? Is a trial that is deliberately limited to a very small number of high-ranking officials actually going to offer 'justice' to those whose direct suffering was due to lower-level functionaries? Is it even possible to hold a just and complete trial when the current government is run by former KR functionaries themselves?

Or is the purpose of the trial not justice at all? Is it intended to assuage the guilt of the Western nations that stood by while the KR did its worst, and then continued to recognize the KR regime as the official regime of Cambodia after the Vietnamese invasion/coup? And if so, might it not be better for the average Cambodian if the money spent on the special court were spent, for example, on improving the overall justice system of the country?

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. I think the trials are important and necessary, but I think one needs to be aware of their inherent limitations, as well as of the trade-offs implicit in the decision to spend a lot of money on a special court that is going to judge just a handful of people.

1 comment:

  1. Oh please, these trials, done 30 years later none the less, are done for the reprieve of Western guilt to their obvious ignorance and general dismissal of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge.

    I think the 'justice' bound to be achieved will have no impact on those who suffered the atrocities. It is better than continuing to ignore everything, but what real purpose does it do for the people of Cambodia?

    As you said, the KR is still mainly in control of the government, so really, nothing can be done to truly alleviate the feelings of the victims.

    It always angers me when we try to prove how kind, generous and understanding we are after completely turning a blind eye and supporting people who we know committed terrible crimes, simply because it was in our interest. Sickening really.