Reaction to the sentencing of two Khmer Rouge leaders to life in prison continued to come in on Friday, as analysts and observers took stock of the UN-backed tribunal and the long process of trying two men accused of leading one of the gravest regimes of the 20th century.
Leaders Nuon Chea, 87, and Khieu Samphan, 82, were given life sentences on Thursday for their leadership roles in the brutal regime, particularly in the atrocities crimes committed by Khmer Rouge cadre as they forced Cambodians to exit cities and work in disastrous agricultural collectives.
But while the verdict signaled a completion to this phase of the trial (there is one more), critics say the court could have done a lot more for Cambodians.
Brad Adams, director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch called the verdicts “too little too late.”
“Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were leaders of the worst government possibly in the history of the world,” he said. “They should have been convicted a long time ago.”
The tribunal moved too slowly and has not pursued enough suspects, he said. “This trial process should have been finished five years ago. We should be seeing many more people on trial for these crimes.”
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who say they will appeal the decision, are facing a second phase in their trial later this year. So far, the court has completed only one trial since its inception in 2006, that of Comrade Duch, who in 2012 received a life sentence for his role as supervisor of the torture center Tuol Sleng.
Another defendant, Ieng Sary, died in tribunal custody, while his wife, Ieng Thirith, another suspect, was found mentally unfit to stand trial. Five more potential defendants have not been formally arrested or indicted, as the court sits on two cases it may never finish.
Given all that, some observers say the court has failed to bring a larger sense of justice to Cambodians who suffered under the regime, or to members of the next generation, who know little of the atrocities and are growing up in country where justice is rarely meted out fairly.
“The world should have done more in bringing many Khmer Rouge leaders to trial already,” said James Tyner, a professor at Kent State University, in Ohio. “The world turned its back on Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, and for the last four decades, the world has continued to turn its back on bringing any sense of justice to this situation.”
That sense of justice is hard to gauge, but for some, not enough was done to upset Cambodia’s culture of impunity, one that has led to mob killings of thieves, major mistrust of the national court system, and, at the beginning at least, high hopes for the tribunal.
Peter Maguire, a legal scholar and author of “Facing Death in Cambodia,” which examines the Khmer Rouge’s legacy, said the court deserves credit for a “small victory” in bringing some leaders to trial. But injustice is apparent to many Cambodians today, even in the tribunal process, he said. “Why does a motorbike thief get killed, and why are these people who were responsible for the deaths of 2 million Cambodians living the rest of their lives in an air-conditioned jail with access to the beset Western medicine?”
“Justice is pretty important for people to feel at peace,” Adams, of Human Rights Watch, said. “And if I were living in a village and still could see a person who killed my family living freely and protected by the government, I would not be at peace.”
Laura McGrew, a consultant for the Open Society Justice Initiative, a New York-based organization that has monitored the tribunal process, said some sense of justice has reached at least some victims, many of whom were worried Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan would receive less than life sentences, or, worse, be released by a court that was initially plagued with allegations of political interference and corruption.
That fear, at least, has been allayed, she said. “Many are still waiting for more explanations, however, as to why these crimes were committed, and to hear more heartfelt confessions and apologies from the accused persons and those that worked under them.”
John Ciorciari, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan who has written a book about the tribunal, said the verdicts will at least help victims know that their suffering has been recognized and “that people who were responsible for it, at least some of those people, have been held accountable and that society is moving forward with the kind of rule of law that will respect the right of future defendants, as well as victims.”
Jeffrey Brand, head of the Center for Law and Global Justice at the University of San Francisco School of Law, said the verdicts of two men, 40 years after the fact, will not be a vindication for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
“Yet the verdicts are critically important,” he said. “They force the world to pay attention and serve as a reminder of the threat of genocidal policies to our fragile global community. Their most important legacy may be what they may help prevent in the future, rather than what they have done to vindicate the horrific crimes of the past.”