Justice vs. Stability
Image Credit: ECCC

Justice vs. Stability


It’s an inevitable debate in countries scarred by the horrors of war, ethnic conflict or genocide. Incoming governments tasked with leading their country out of the dark must ask themselves what their priority should be in the quest for reconciliation: Leading the country forward and turning the page on history, or prosecuting those responsible to the fullest extent of the law? And so it is in Cambodia, as the trial of four former Khmer Rouge members is set to recommence in late November after being hit by numerous delays and postponements.

There are strong arguments – and plenty of studies and other evidence – to support both answers to the above question. In Sierra Leone, for example, an independent judicial body was established to try individuals who bore the ‘greatest responsibility’ for crimes that were committed during the country’s civil war in the late 1990s. As of today, 20 individuals have been indicted.

After apartheid was abolished in South Africa, however, the idea of a special court was never followed up by African National Congress leaders. Instead, the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to give victims a voice while guaranteeing amnesty for perpetrators of the crimes in exchange for honest testimony. Truth commissions have since been replicated across the globe in areas of post-conflict transition, from Latin American countries such as El Salvador and Chile, to Asian states such as Timor-Leste and South Korea. 

Finding the right balance between ascertaining the truth and providing justice for victims through criminal prosecutions is an exceptionally delicate issue, requiring the utmost sensitivity among political leaders, some of whom themselves may have been involved in abhorrent criminal acts during times of conflict.

In Cambodia, where the brutal Khmer Rouge regime was ultimately responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people (about 20 percent of the country’s population), legal analysts postulated that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which was created in 2003, would be ‘seen as a model of international justice and reconciliation for mass atrocities like genocide.’

But as of today, only five Khmer Rouge leaders have been indicted by the tribunal. While popular support for prosecution amongst survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror remains high, political pressure from Phnom Penh has curtailed the court’s prosecution mechanisms. The trials, some government officials argue, will only serve to destabilize the country. Meanwhile, it has been four long years since indictments were handed down on ‘Brother Number Two’ Nuon Chea, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, his wife and ex-Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, and former head of state Khieu Samphan. After several procedural hearings over the summer, only in this past week has a date of November 21 been set to begin trial proceedings. The tribunal has also been contemplating bringing indictments against five additional unnamed Khmer Rouge members, a move that the government in Phnom Penh has expressed some apprehension about.

There’s no right or wrong answer to the justice vs. stability debate. On the one hand, past is prologue, and we must always be cognizant of the conditions under which such crimes were allowed to occur. However, there’s a compelling argument for looking forward and moving on (though of course this raises the question of whether a people can ever truly move on without closure).

And in addition to justice, there’s the issue of forgiveness. Across the world, truth commissions and reconciliation workshops have facilitated an extraordinary amount of forgiveness among those who have been wronged. With the trial of these four former Khmer Rouge members scheduled to begin soon, it can only be hoped that the proceedings will be allowed the independence and space they need to provide the victims with the closure they require.

Kim's Uncle
February 2, 2013 at 14:55

No wonder China tried to keep a lid about publicity about this the trial of Khmer Rouge! If the world knew about it the more disgusted they would be about china! Everything about china disgust me! I notice not a lot of wu Mao like the notorious John chan are silence when it comes to issues that embarrass china!

October 25, 2011 at 00:46

Another piece of the (ugly) truth:
http://www.newstatesman.com/200004170017 (How Thatcher gave Pol Pot a hand – John Pilger)

October 25, 2011 at 00:30

We can not say for sure who was using who, but morality was certainly also a victim in this Cold War period.
Quote: “Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him, but China could.”
(Zbiniew Brezinski, National Security Advisor to President Carter)

I must admit that we can witness some testimonials of culpability, at least from individuals living in a society like the USA’s. Even CIA operatives involved in this conflict were disgusted of what they had to do. Watch this:


With the tyranny of propaganda and the opaque censorship in China, nobody has heard of any regret from the Chinese people (I hope I am wrong). We can not avoid a repeat of such a tragedy if we do not relentlessly look for and propagate the TRUTH.

(Siem Reap – which means “Deafeat of the Siamese” – is quite far from the border with Thailand, formerly kingdom of Siam)

October 24, 2011 at 11:22

Red China was once a tool of the US. The US used the Chinese in its cold war against the Soviet Union so no surprises that uncle Sam’s hands were bloody one time but anyway, the main sponsor of the murderous Khmer Rouge was undoubtedly China ideologically, financially, and militarily.
I did visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia in 2004 but I didn’t dare to visit “those killing fields” remains (tons of human skulls displayed) because it wasn’t good for an emotional old guy like me. Anyway, I spent mostly entire of my 10 days in Siem Rep, sleepy town bordered with Thailand (it is where the disputed Preah Vihear temple was located). My tour guide was a guy whose teacher father, was one of the perished in the killing field. And yes, there was a landmine(those made in China) museum in Siem Rep and I was told to watch your steps when wandering around in remote areas.

October 24, 2011 at 03:45

For the ordinary Khmer, the aim is not only for justice. It is to officially record the WHOLE truth, as a lesson for their future generations.

But the whole truth will NOT be recorded, although well known.

For one, this Tribunal is not an independent one. This so-called ECCC is a compromise after years of political bargaining, with China resolutely opposing the creation in the UN of an international tribunal (China even threatened to use its veto).

For two, although China of Deng Xiaoping was the main backer of the KR, in arms and financial aids, the US of Jimmy Carter was the main accomplice of China. You can read “When the war was over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge revolution” by Elizabeth Becker p435.

And to expose all the “craziness” of our dark nature, even the Brits sent their SAS to train the Khmer Rouge in the art of using land mines, such land mines still causing devastating effects in remote areas, the victims being especially children. Just ask the NGO “Handicap International” for an account.

So if you are having holidays in Cambodia today, don’t hesitate to ask the guide to pay a visit of their many Killing Fields museums (there is one in all most any town). At first, you may be shocked at such displays of human remains. You will later understand why they do so if you listen to their story. I have been told that they will burn these remains once the ECCC work is over.

October 22, 2011 at 08:23

This has been a long overdue to bring the justice to Cambodian people, no matter what, who will be affected. Justice must prevail over stability. The Cambodian leadership today is full of ex-Khmer Rouge , Hun Sen included. They need to face consequences. How could you get away with killing 1.5 million lives and untouchable as we are seeing today?. This includes the Chinese Maoists as well. A Cambodian life is less valuable than a Chinese? If we can’t put entire of Chinese leadership before international court, at least the world should ask them to kneel down, bow and apologize the Cambodian people besides of financial aids.
This is my old man 2 cent. Please, Chinese bloggers don’t insult me.

Leonard R.
October 22, 2011 at 06:08

Turn the page.

The image here is of paternalistic colonialism. Foreigners, especially rich, European foreigners, are sitting in judgment over elderly Cambodian citizens.

The court is lavish. Justice is spared no expense. These Europeans are well-paid. Yet outside the doors of this grand tribunal, it is impossible to walk 50 meters without encountering child beggars.

Anyone who has spent time in Camodia should know two things:

1. It is a very poor country.

2. The Khmer Rouge have never gone away.

This money can be better spent building water systems for Cambodian villages.

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