"We lost our voice…"

Earlier this week, I highlighted the conflicts between national and international prosecutors in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT) and suggested that there was a real risk the Cambodian public would become disillusioned with the KRT. Unfortunately, that fear is on its way to becoming a reality.

Upon its creation, KRT adapted an innovative procedure designed to allow the victims of the Khmer Rouge to testify at trial. It was hoped that participation of these so-called civil parties would give the victims a sense of closure. This had never been attempted before in any other international criminal tribunal. And after the results at the KRT, it might never be attempted again.
Cambodians report being extremely disillusioned with the civil-party process. Many felt that the judges, prosecutors, and defense ignored their testimony. As the Duch trial went on, opportunities for civil parties to testify diminished. Further hampering the process was the fact that each civil party is represented by their own lawyers, rather than collectively. Some of these lawyers have behaved less than professionally – one even visibly rolled his eyes and yawned during another attorney’s closing argument.

The problems are highlighted by a recent profile on Chum Mey, one of the three living survivors of Duch’s notorious S-21 internment center. Chum Mey testified as a civil party against Duch. However, he felt that the judges cut off his testimony, but allowed Duch unlimited time to respond to his allegations. “So at that point,” he reports, “I felt like I did not have any rights to express my concerns, but Duch had the right to express himself.” What a cruel humiliation to impose upon a human rights victim – rather than redressing the crime, the process reinforced the power imbalance between Duch and Chum Mey. At the end, Chum Mey claims the civil parties “lost our voice… and there is no real justice for us.” As the BBC puts it:

The experience left some feeling that they’d been guinea pigs in a judicial experiment – and a number boycotted the court.

There is a silver lining in all of these grey skies – namely, that we will probably never need any ad hoc international criminal tribunals ever again. Why not? Currently, we have the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and, of course, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, as well as a few others. The covers most of the major late-20th-century crimes against humanity. For any crimes committed after 2002, we now have the International Criminal Court.* Thus, the international community will not have to debate for decades over the structure and composition of international tribunals after each and ever violation. In theory, this will also deter future would-be Milosovices and Pol Pots.

* Well, it’s a bit more complicated. First of all, the ICC only has jurisdiction over countries that are parties to the Rome Statute – and, not surprisingly, the United States is not a party. Second, only certain crimes are delineated, and some, such as the crime of “aggression” in war, remain vague.

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