A former UN diplomat to Cambodia says the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal has not been a good use of resources and urged donors to now consider spending money on projects that do more for national reconciliation.
“It costs too much and it does not serve any purpose,” Benny Widyono, the UN secretary-general’s representative to Cambodia in 1992 and 1993, recently told a group of students in the US.
The tribunal has been operating now for nearly a decade and has completed the trial of only a single defendant, Kaing Kek Iev. It is currently trying two aging former leaders, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, but observers fear more cases will not be tried. The court has spent more than $200 million.
Widyono, who is currently a professor at the University of Connecticut, said that kind of spending has not done what it needs to. “The reconciliation should be according to the Buddhist religion among the people. Just a tribunal that costs millions of dollars is not helpful. To me, it costs too much and prolongs it. Most of [the Khmer Rouge leaders] are half dead, anyway. Ieng Sary was dead. So the reconciliation can be brought about through other means, such as religious gatherings.”
Tribunal spokesman Neth Pheaktra defended the court, saying it has spent less than other tribunals, such as those in Yugoslavia or Sierra Leon. “It is also contributing to seeking the truth and justice as well as to the reconciliation of the Cambodian victims of the Khmer Rouge.”
Still, critics say the court may not have been that effective.
“The mechanism is international and Western, so exploiting it in Cambodian society may not work and meet what the people want and understand as their justice,” said Kosal Path, an associate professor at Brooklyn College, in New York.
The tribunal has also suffered from political interference by Cambodia’s top leaders, and has endured multiple accusations of mismanagement and corruption, including required kickbacks from Cambodia staff in order to keep their jobs.
Without commenting on the corruption allegations, Widyono said the people who work at the court are motivated to keep it running. “They want it to be continued because they get good salaries; even the guards they bring from New York with blue helmets, they get thousands of dollars,” he said.
Neth Pheaktra said those who work at the court want to see its work completed. “What is more important is that the staff here, both international and national, have collectively tried to seek truth and justice for the victims, in response to what they long waited for, as well as in response to the rights to a quick trial for the defendants,” he said.
Nevertheless, many Cambodians are frustrated with the court, said Laura McGrew, who is a consultant and author of a recent scholarly paper on reconciliation in Cambodia.
“They’re really tired, as [court officials] have taken so long, and they don’t understand why,” she said in a recent interview. “But many of them still want international justice, as they don’t trust domestic justice.”