Surrounded from its inception by squabbles between the Cambodian government and the United Nations, mired in charges of corruption and perennially short of cash, the tribunal set up to judge surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime is once again in jeopardy.
The question of where the tribunal is headed arose again in early November because of two events: an unusually candid and critical farewell message from the departing chief of the defense support section and the publication by the New York–based Open Society Justice Initiative of a report acknowledging that the court will sooner or later be wound down, and that plans should be made now to avoid having its work cut short by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has made no effort to hide his distaste for it.
In a third, separate but not unrelated development, Hun Sen has told the UN that unless it removes its chief human rights representative in Cambodia, Christophe Peschoux, the government will close down the Phnom Penh office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the first of its kind to be established in a national capital. Peschoux, who is accused by officials of favoring opposition politicians, has been outspoken on threatened political and economic rights, including the beating of protesters and the practice of "land-grabbing," when poor Cambodians’ properties are seized illegally for the use of politically well-connected people or foreign companies.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said on November 2 that the dual threats to the Khmer Rouge tribunal and the UN human rights office "seriously question the state of the rule of law and the development of democratic institutions in the country."
Though the Cambodian government has usually been cast as the villain in this long-running story—the court was first proposed formally in 1997 and took a decade to be fully functioning—both the UN and the United States are complicit, given their missteps in the years leading to the tribunal’s creation.
Cambodia’s autocratic and uncooperative government, and Hun Sen himself, might not be so strongly and willfully entrenched if the UN, running a transitional administration in the early 1990s, had not so readily given in to his bullying. Hun Sen was a holdover from a government installed under virtual Vietnamese occupation after Hanoi’s troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and he stood for reelection in 1993, under UN oversight. His Cambodian Peoples Party lost decisively to a royalist party led by Nordom Ranariddh, a son of King Norodom Sihanouk.
In the years that followed, Hun Sen, as co-prime minister with Ranariddh in an unworkable coalition, simply pushed the victor aside by claiming key ministries—with UN acquiescence—and finishing the job with a coup after the UN was no longer in charge.
From the American side, UN legal experts say that there was intense pressure on them to set up a tribunal to try Khmer Rouge figures. The United States and Southeast Asian nations had in the 1980s backed an armed opposition arrayed against Hun Sen and the Vietnamese that included the defeated Khmer Rouge. There was something exculpatory about the way Washington campaigned for a tribunal to try leaders of the monstrous regime after that fact. The State Department also funded the Cambodia Genocide Project, an archive of Khmer Rouge atrocities based at Yale that later moved much of its operation to Phnom Penh.