U.N. Dumps Justice in Cambodia

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.

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