artist's rendition of Cambodian genocide court

The Khmer Rouge Trials:
Justice for those who lived through the Cambodian Genocide

by Sara Smith

December 6, 2005

web project for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
(course homepage, web projects index page,
Cambodia project main page)

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There is not a country in the world today that can say that they have never had a dark area in their past. At one point in time, a vast majority of the countries in the world have had something occur that they are not proud to have to admit. In the minds of the population of the world, the biggest issue that has happened is the Holocaust during the Second World War. But even after the world was able to bring the Nazis out of power and set those in the camps free, the world still did not learn from the mistakes and atrocities that it had witnessed. Horrible things are still occurring to other groups of people in other countries all of the time. One example of this is the Cambodian genocide. In the late 1970s a group by the name of Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia and forced its people into the rural areas. About 1.7 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge while they were in power from 1975 through 1979. The people who fell under the rule of the Khmer Rouge are now looking for justice for what they suffered through during that time. The trials of those involved in the Khmer Rouge has taken a long time to get started, and for the government to get itself organized to give the people justice. Looking at the process that was taken to bring justice to the people of Cambodia gives insight into how much the world and its countries have learned from other injustices and genocides in the past.

The process of justice for the genocide in Cambodia started on June 21, 1997, when the Cambodian co-prime ministers asked the United Nations to step in and help organize the trials for those involved in the Khmer Rouge. Thomas Hammarberg is the representative for Cambodia and was the one able to get the Cambodian government to ask for help from the United Nations (Ratner, 949). On April 15, 1998 Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge died in a camp near the Thai border. At the end of 1998, on December 25, the last two remaining senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, surrendered, and the reintegration of their armed forces began (Khmer Rouge Task Force).

In 1998 a group of experts was formed to examine the evidence, the law and different options of how to proceed with the trials of the Khmer Rouge. This group worked from July 1998 until February 1999 looking at three different things. The first was evaluating the evidence and the crimes. They had the job of determining whether in the last twenty years there was still evidence that could be used in a trial. The group found that there was evidence for certain people in a select few operations, one of them being the torture that occurred at Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. The outcome of this portion of the groupís work allowed the government to know which crimes could be prosecuted in the trials. The second thing that the group looked into was in regard to being able to apprehend the people responsible. The group decided that only those who were seen as most responsible for the crimes should be brought to justice. The last portion of what the team looked at were the different options for bringing people to justice. There were five options that the team had to look at: "a tribunal established under Cambodian law; a UN tribunal; a Cambodian tribunal under Un administration; an international tribunal by multilateral treaty; and trials in states other than Cambodia (Ratner, 949)." The group decided that a United Nations tribunal would be the best route to go.

The group wanted the trials to be held outside of Cambodia because they were fearful that if the trials were held in Cambodia, there would be manipulation and interference of the judicial process. However, in the end the Cambodian government rejected the idea of having the trials held outside of Cambodia. In the year 2000 the drafts for the trials and the court system were discussed. There were a couple of drafts and revisions made to try to meet the goals of the trials but also to make all parties involved as happy with the final project as possible. In 2001 the draft was finally passed, with still a couple of revisions being made by all parties involved.

In August of 2001 Cambodiaís king Norodom Sihanouk signed the legislation as well to prosecute those found responsible for the genocide that took place in 1975. At this point in time it was still unclear when the trials would begin, but according to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the trials would hopefully begin by the end of the year (Asia Today). In 2002 the United Nations made a statement that it will be withdrawing from the negotiations with Cambodia regarding the trials. The remaining portion of the year 2002 involved the twenty- seven countries that formed the Group of Interested States trying to resume negotiations between the United Nations and Cambodia. Finally in 2003 an agreement was made and the United Nations resumed with the negotiations. It was decided that the United Nations and Cambodia should split the cost of the trials between them. It was presumed that both groups would have to borrow money from other nations in order to pay for the trials.

The first few months of 2004 were spent trying to figure out the budget for the trials. Other countries around the world have pledged money for the trials to help out and to get the process started. In May 2004, the trials were halted because the three main political parties in Cambodia could not resolve issues dealing with their roles in the future government.

However, because of the problems with the politics, other issues have been resolved. The location of the trials has been decided upon. A theater in Phnom Penh will be converted into a courthouse, and the court staff will be able to work out of the National Cultural Center. Under what is so far decided upon, it has been agreed that the court will operate under Cambodian jurisdiction with a majority of the judges being Cambodian judges. It is thought that anywhere from five to ten people formerly in the Khmer Rouge will be prosecuted and that the trials will last for about three years.

The downside of all of the problems going on is that there is a fear that those who will be prosecuted will pass away before the trials begin and that those who were victims of the Khmer Rouge will die before they are able to have any kind of justice (Alan Sipree). August 23, 2005 through September 3, 2005 saw the first training course for thirty judges and prosecutors. Around the same time, August 30, 2005 through September 10, 2005 the first training course for thirty lawyers took place. On October 19, 2005 final agreements between the Cambodian government and the United Nations were reached. The beginning of 2005 saw the countries giving up more money for the trials. April 25, 2005 through May 6, 2005 saw the second training for judges and prosecutors occurring. And in June 20, 2005 through July 1, 2005 the second training for the lawyers took place. As of this writing the trials have not yet begun. There is still the waiting period for all of the funds to be found before the trials can begin. There is some question as to whether the trials will actually take place and give those who died under the Khmer Rouge the peace and justice that they deserve. But at this point, it has been so long that there must be some feeling of hopelessness that anything will ever be done. Personally, I hope that the trials do take place, just to give peace of mind and some kind of closure to those who need it.

Even after all of these years in which we have supposedly learned from our mistakes and promised that nothing similar would ever happen again, horrible atrocities occur throughout the world. And when the terror is finally halted it takes many years for any kind of action against those responsible to be taken. After almost thirty years those who caused all of this pain and grief are still not being brought to justice. If this was occurring in your backyard instead of someone elseís what would you do or feel or think about the fact that it is taking so long for something, anything to be done?

About the Author (back to top)

Sara Elizabeth Smith,
I am a senior at the University of California Santa Barbara. I will be graduating at the end of Fall quarter 2005 as an Art History major with emphasis in non-Western art. This project for me was an eye-opener. Before meeting Lavinia, one of the girls I worked with on the project, I had never heard of the Cambodian genocide. Doing this project made me realize how much I do not know about the world I live in, and in the future I will be looking out for any information that is important about what is happening in our world.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on12/6/05; last updated: 12/14/05
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