Monday, May 02, 2005

Cambodia Closer to Justice


Craig Etcheson waited a long time for this moment. Ever since the American first came to Cambodia in the early 1980s, shortly after it was liberated from the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, he has been honing his forensic science skills to prove beyond legal doubt that surviving leaders committed one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century.

He is the keeper of many lists, locations of yet unexcavated mass graves (defined as one with more than four bodies) should the prosecutors need more skulls to clinch their case against a number of aging Khmer Rouge leaders accused of having tortured and murdered some 1.7 million people between 1975-1979.

It was thirty years ago that the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, occupied the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, its population swollen by war, and proceeded to virtually empty the city of its inhabitants, setting out four years of unspeakable horrors that ended only after Vietnam invaded and occupied the country.

For the first time since those events, and barring some new obstacle, the surviving leaders of the genocide (Pol Pot died in 1998) will be held to account. They number from six to a dozen – actual indictments await the convening of the tribunal – who would be tried for crimes against humanity.

It has taken a long time. But the trials are ready to begin. All the parties, including the U.N., reached an agreement on the modalities at the end of 2004. The Cambodian National Assembly ratified the agreement last October. It was agreed that the tribunal would be held in Cambodia with a complement of Cambodian and international judges.

But as of the end of March the organizers were still short of their goal raising the $43 million needed to fund the tribunal for the three years it is expected to run. Of that, about $38 million has been pledged, most of the money coming from Japan, the rest from France, Britain and Australia. That leaves it about $4 million short.

Conspicuously absent is the United States. Washington, in theory, supports the tribunal, but Congress passed a law that barred the U.S. government from providing a single penny. The law states unequivocally: “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to provide assistance to any tribunal established by the Government of Cambodia.”

The Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee is headed by Sen. Mitch McConnell ® of Kentucky, the powerful Majority Whip of the U.S. Senate. It is fair to say that he and his friends in the International Republican Institute (IRI) have had it in for Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen for a long time. McConnell makes no bones that he favors regime change.

He is the author of one of the most extraordinary pieces of foreign policy legislation ever proposed in American history: the “Cambodia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2003.” It would have conditioned further aid to Cambodia on having “a new leadership . . . elected in free and fair elections.” The latter are defined specifically as ones in which “Prime Minister Hun Sen is no longer in power.”

Their animosity towards Hun Sen dates back to 1997, and possibly beyond. In March of that year some grenades were tossed into an opposition party rally. They killed more than a dozen members of the Khmer Nation Party (now the Sam Rainsy Party). Also wounded was an American, Rod Abney, who was working in Cambodia for the IRI.

Cambodia may not be a model of good government. The bureaucracy is bloated and the judiciary is often corrupt, which is one reason why the agreements provide for the inclusion of foreign judges. One could wait until Cambodia’s body politic reaches perfection or until Hun Sen leaves office, but by then most of the perpetrators of the genocide, now in their 70s, will be dead and there won’t be any point in holding a tribunal.

The tribunal may or may not go ahead without America’s participation. Some other benefactor may come up with the additional funds. But it would be a shame if trial of the greatest mass murder since the Nazi death camps were held up because of a vendetta by one powerful senator and a fistful of dollars.

Meanwhile Etcheson waits with his lists.


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