Pol Pot, the man most wanted for the slaughter of 1.7 million Cambodians, went to his grave without ever being brought to justice — and if recent events are anything to go by, several aging Khmer Rouge leaders with blood on their tracks may do likewise.
The United Nations has announced it is walking out of more than four years of negotiations with the Cambodian government. The talks were aimed at arriving at a U.N. role in a future joint tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The U.N.'s chief legal counsel, Hans Corell, declared the United Nations was ditching negotiations since the trial proposed by the Cambodian government would not guarantee "the independence, objectivity and impartiality that a court established with the support of the United Nations must have."
Although the governments of some countries expressed surprise and have urged a return to negotiations, the hitch in getting the perpetrators of one of modern history's most brutal massacres to justice merited scant notice in the international media.
But in the teeming back streets of the capital of Phnom Penh and across the lush green countryside, millions of Cambodians watched the door close on their hope for international justice for the leaders of a period locals call "the era of the killing fields."
"There is an overwhelming wish in Cambodia for international acknowledgement and recognition of the genocide of Cambodians," said Ben Kiernan, professor of history and director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University. "I think it's unfortunate that this has happened. There was a genuine hope that the international community would participate hand-in-hand with the Cambodian government to bring justice on this period of history."
Time Is Ticking
More than 20 years after the shadowy communist regime was evicted from power, most former Khmer Rouge leaders live openly in and around the northwestern town of Pailin, the one-time jungle headquarters of the movement after it was ousted from power.
And time is ticking on Cambodian hopes for justice.
Most of Pol Pot's lieutenants are old and suffering from poor health. The only two former Khmer Rouge officials in detention are likely be freed within weeks as they have been held without trial for close to three years, the maximum period under Cambodian law.
Ta Mok, known as "The Butcher" and Kaing Kek Ieu, nicknamed "Duch," who served as the commander of an infamous torture center, were arrested a year after Pol Pot's death. But the Cambodian judiciary, notorious for its corruption and lack of resources, has failed to bring them to trial.
In Phnom Penh on Thursday, Ta Mok's lawyer said his client must be released by March 6 unless the government begins trial proceedings.
Reactions of Shock and Dismay
Reacting to the announcement of the U.N. pullout a week ago, the governments of the United States, France, Japan and Britain have publicly called for the resumption of negotiations between the United Nations and Cambodia.
On its part, the Cambodian government reacted "with dismay" to the decision. Earlier this week, Sok An, the Cambodian government's chief negotiator with the United Nations, expressed an "earnest hope" that the United Nations would change its mind.