Khmer Rouge Victims Will Have Official Role in Tribunals

by Cara on June 18, 2008

in Asia, courts, human rights, International, race and racism, rape and sexual assault, violence against women and girls

I found this to be really interesting: victims will be active participants in the tribunals prosecuting five former Khmer Rouge leaders. Hundreds of people have applied to be recognized officially as victims.

They are two of hundreds of people who have applied to the court to be recognized officially as victims of the Khmer Rouge and to bring parallel civil cases against them.

They will have a chance not to beat and torture them but to seek mostly symbolic reparations — a monument, perhaps, or a museum or trauma center.

It is a controversial experiment in this unusual hybrid tribunal, which is administered jointly by the United Nations and the Cambodian government and comprises elements of Cambodian and international law.

“For the first time in history, the internal rules of a tribunal will give victims of crimes the possibility to participate as parties,” said Gabriela González Rivas, deputy head of the tribunal’s victims unit.

Victims have been included in other comparable tribunals, like the International Criminal Court, but their role has been more limited.

As civil parties, the victims here will have standing comparable to those of the accused, including rights to participate in the investigation, to be represented by a lawyer, to call witnesses and to question the accused at trial, according to a court statement.

“Participation in these types of proceedings is a tool of empowerment,” Ms. Rivas said. “People can tell their story, feel that what happened to them is a consideration, a recognizing that what happened to them shouldn’t have happened.”

This seems like a great idea to me, allowing some of the victims to speak on their own behalf, and therefore also letting other victims feel as though they are represented. It’s a big improvement from lawyers and international officials speaking about the atrocities as though the victims aren’t there in the room. If what we’re looking for here is both recognition and justice, it seems that victims should definitely play a large role in that.

Of course, as with all things — particularly all things legal — not everyone agrees.

The participation of victims is drawing more criticism, partly from people concerned for the rights of the accused and the preservation of the presumption of innocence.

Victor Koppe, a defense lawyer for one of the Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea, called the presumption of innocence “the most fundamental issue” in the case.

“The question is whether or not everything in this tribunal is institutionalized in such a way that only guilty verdicts can come,” he said.

Other critics say the court is being distracted by social agendas from its core task of seeking justice for crimes against humanity.

“I would put this under the category of therapeutic legalism,” said Peter Maguire, an expert on international justice and author of “Facing Death in Cambodia.”

“This is an invention of the 1990s, where people freighted the trials with all this baggage,” Mr. Maguire said. “How do you measure closure, how do you measure truth, how do you measure reconciliation? These are not empirical categories.”

I can see a point here, but I find it to be undeniably wrong and insulting to refer to the right of victims to represent the violence they suffered as “all this baggage.” All that “baggage” is precisely what the trials are about. We’re not talking about abstract concepts here, we’re talking about people, and comments like these actually make my conviction in favor of victim participation stronger.

These types of tribunals are symbolic at best anyway. In this case, there is no justice, no way to right what was wronged. We’re dealing with a regime that is more than accused of, but very widely acknowledged to be responsible for genocide, the killing of 1.7 million people, or 21% of the country’s population. They are acknowledged to be responsible for execution, torture, imprisonment, starvation, forced labor, displacement and rape in huge numbers, and there’s no way to argue it as anything other than systematic. The Times didn’t even feel the need to use the word “alleged” in referring to crimes of which the Khmer Rouge are being accused. There’s a technicality here when it comes to the trial, but does anyone actually believe that we’re starting out with a presumption of innocence? The only defense for this human scum is to argue that they were not actually working for the Khmer Rouge, or that they were unaware that heinous crimes against humanity were being sanctioned. Both seem far fetched and unlikely to be successful. And in any case, it seems that the goal here isn’t to give the victims undue power over the accused, but to put them on level platforms, to grant them equal legal rights.

Giving victims the right to speak about the atrocities for which the international community is trying to bring about reconciliation, something that isn’t going to happen in any real sense most likely for quite some time, is “baggage”? Sorry, I don’t buy that. It strikes me as a very bare minimum of fairness.

But I’m not an expert on any of this. What are your thoughts?

Photo of people imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng.

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{ 2 comments }

1 Heather J. June 18, 2008 at 12:05 pm

I came across your site through the Weekly Geeks Feed Natasha set up. This is a fascinating post. I’ve heard about it before but thanks for covering the main issues here.

2 Ryan June 18, 2008 at 12:34 pm

I do not really accept the argument that the victims should not be involved in the trial. The accused has a role, why not the “alleged” victim? I agree that fair trials are important but that is sort of a self-evident statement.

If the victims’ involvement somehow undermines that fairness then the impetus falls upon the defense to illustrate how; what they did was just state the obvious, that a fair trial is important and that is a pretty deficient argument.

I read the article and concluded that in this case victim involvement amounts to two things here: ability to seek restitution and ability to question defendants. I understand the slippery slope argument but to be perfectly honest; I just do not see in this case how the victims’ involvement undermines the rights of the accused.

BTW, I have been lurking here for a while and just wanted to add I really enjoy this blog. It makes me think!

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