In Cambodia, the prize for peace is justice

27. Jul 2010

35 years of prison time for Kaeng Kek Iev – better known as Duch – is strange.  Iev, a prison chief in Cambodia’s notorious torture prison S-21 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, is responsible for the violent and untimely death of about 14000 people.  

He is the first person ever to stand trial and receive verdict for his crimes during the genocide in 1975-79.

It seemed more appropriate that the judge would read something like “lifetime times a gazillion”, when the first-ever verdict over a Khmer Rouge cadre was read up yesterday at the UN-supported war crimes tribunal in Cambodia.

Nevertheless, the verdict read 35. Of those 35, five was subtracted in compensation for him being illegally detained and another 11 subtracted, because he already served them, while waiting for the tribunal to make up its mind in how to proceed in prosecuting him.

In total, for genocide, crimes against humanity and murder: 19 years. This means the 67-year-old will conceivably have a chance of living as free man in his last years.

Strange. But not that strange.

Already in 1998, the Cambodian government asked the UN for help setting up a war crimes tribunal to convict the perpetrators of the genocide of Cambodia, where approximately 2 million people died, either of starvation, exhaustion or execution. One of the main motivators of setting up the tribunal was the death of Brother No 1, Pol Pot, in 1998. Despite leading the murderous revolution in Cambodia, he was never prosecuted for his crimes.

However, the Cambodian government sanctioned their request with a bunch of demands: The tribunal were to be placed in Cambodia, there was to be an overweight of national staff, the entire budget was to come from elsewhere than Cambodia. Years of negotiation later, in 2006, the Cambodian government got its way – with small alterations – and the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was established in Phnom Penh.

It almost did not happen at all. Former Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed doubts on the special construction with an overweight of  Cambodian staff – judges in particular – and warned, the Cambodian government had too much influence, a concern that later has proven to be all to valid. He was backed up by pretty much every expert, NGO and non-cambodian official that had their hands on this project.

But still, the tribunal moved forward and why? Because in Cambodia peace was more important than a fair tribunal. After decades of genocide, occupation, coup and political instability, a flawed and corrupt tribunal was better than having no tribunal at all.

This is also why the UN, despite many threats, has stayed in as a partner. From the start, Annan and the UN made clear that they would withdrew their participation, were the international standards not met.

They weren’t. There have been countless examples of both corruption and especially political interference within the tribunal. One example is the documented cases of salary kickbacking that was discovered in Februar 2007. Another the refusal to take the witness stand by several high level politician, when they were summoned by the court. But despite threats of it, UN never withdrew.

Today, we are looking at a painfully controlled tribunal, a way too long process, one extremely low verdict and an equally low number of defendants. These points of critique surface again and again and they do not become any less valid as time goes by, so why do key players, like UN, express satisfaction with the tribunal?

Because it could not have been any other way. It was this or nothing at all.

Had the UN not agreed to the terms back in 1998, Cambodia would never have had the money and competence to establish something like the ECCC. The government would have continued ignoring the shadow of the genocide hovering right over their heads.

And had the UN decided to make good of their own promise and withdrew from the ECCC, Cambodia would have blamed the international society for failing them, just as it did in the 80s, where it let the Khmer Rouge keep its seat in the UN, despite knowledge of their role in committing genocide in their own country.

Any of these events would compromise the fragile political stability, Cambodia desperately needs.

So today, Cambodia has a tribunal, of which it has full political control and on which only politically approved candidates will be tried.

In it’s various positions sit sons, nephews, good friends, people, who have paid people and people, who are owed something…along with just and competent people, who work to achieve what is achievable in the frames they are given.

The prosecution will see no more than ten defendants – and more likely just the five that are already detained, despite the fact that tens of thousands former leaders and war criminals are still living life as free men and woman in Cambodia. Many of those are in powerful positions in Cambodia today.

This is the compromise. This is what we could have. Duch ridiculous low sentence of 19 years is a part of it, however sad, unjust and frustrating beyond words it may seem.

Fair? No. Peaceful? Yes.