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.
But Steven Ratner, professor of law at the University of Texas and a member of a 1998 U.N.-appointed committee of experts to study the situation, warned against holding the United Nations responsible for the stalled international justice process.
The fault, according to Ratner, lies solely with the Cambodian authorities. "If the Cambodian government wants to conduct a trial on its own terms, under their own laws, they're welcome to it," he said. "I don't think it's right for the U.N. to be participating in a justice process that does not meet international standards."
A Question of the Law
The key sticking point prompting the U.N. pullout was the Cambodian government's insistence that the tribunal be subject to Cambodian laws.
In a 1998 report submitted to the United Nations, Ratner, along with two other experts, recommended that a full-blown international war crime tribunal — such as the ones covering the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda — be set up for Cambodia, which would be subject solely to international law.
But Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected the committee's proposals, giving the green light instead for a proposed "mixed" tribunal subject to both international and Cambodian laws. Ratner claimed to be not at all surprised by Hun Sen's decision.
Commitment to Justice
A former member of the Khmer Rouge cadre, Hun Sen defected early to the Vietnamese side before the neighboring country helped oust the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Many experts believe that given his past, Hun Sen is not at all keen to see justice brought to the Khmer Rouge.
"The Cambodian government has never been interested in international justice," said Ratner. "Part of the reason is it is afraid of what will emerge in an international trial, of the testimonies that will emerge, of who will be implicated and they won't have any control over what comes up. And that's anathema to the way Hun Sen is used to operating."
One of the poorest countries in Asia, Cambodia is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Last year, international donors pledged $615 million in aid to the impoverished Southeast Asian state, but made special note of the disappointingly slow pace of judicial, civil service and anti-corruption reforms.
Some experts say Hun Sen only agreed to the idea of an international tribunal for Cambodia because he was desperately in need of foreign aid. They point to the fact that Hun Sen has, in the past, publicly admitted that some prosecutions could destabilize the country.
Lieutenants of Genocide
In the list of Khmer Rouge seniors strongly implicated in the brutal killings during the "era of the killing fields," former foreign minister Ieng Sary, and chief ideologue Nuon Chea are protected by an amnesty granted to them by Cambodian King Sihanouk in 1996.
Ieng Sary has close links with China, which was the Khmer Rouge's main backer, and the Chinese government has in the past vetoed U.N. Security Council attempts to set up a full-blown international criminal tribunal for Cambodia that would be subject to international law.
With so many skeletons threatening to spill out of the closet, experts say they aren't surprised that Hun Sen should attempt to get the stamp of international justice served on his own terms.
But the United Nations is in no mood to be used for political ends. "Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not take this decision lightly," said Farhan Haq, a U.N. spokesman. "We only came to this decision when we realized that further dialogue would not take us forward. For the past four-and-a-half years, we have been negotiating with Cambodia. The decision was not taken lightly and the secretary-general stands by it."
But it's a game of hardball that threatens to leave ordinary Cambodians and the victims of one of history's most cruel crimes against humanity still wanting for justice.