The Khmer Rouge Tribunal Is Falling Apart: Is It Still Worth the Trouble?


The tribunal was supposed to address war crimes from the Cambodian group's brutal 1970s reign.

cambodia march23 p.jpg

A former Khmer Rouge prison warden stands trial in Cambodia / Reuters

Earlier this week, another of the foreign judges on the Khmer Rouge (KR) tribunal quit: Laurent Kaspar-Ansermet from Switzerland. According to press reports and his own statement, he quit because of continuing interference in the tribunal by his Cambodian counterpart, Judge You Bunleng, who apparently was trying to block the tribunal from investigating and possibly prosecuting any more KR suspects beyond the tiny handful of top leaders already charged.

The KR tribunal is going from bad to worse. Another foreign judge, Siegfried Blunt from Germany, quit last fall, making the same allegations of Cambodian justices interfering to stop any new investigations and possible prosecutions of former KR leaders. Of course, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has long been opposed to any more investigations, or really to the concept of the tribunal at all -- he has told people that he essentially wanted to bury the KR period and not look back. Although Hun Sen, a former KR cadre, was low-ranking enough that he never would have been touched by the tribunal, he has many allies who conceivably could have been, and he probably just does not like the concept of the tribunal pushing harder into the past of important figures in Cambodia, a precedent he does not want to set for his own government. Hun Sen and other government leaders' argument that prosecuting more top KR figures would lead to civil war again in Cambodia is utterly ridiculous; after years of destructive war, no Cambodians are interested in more large-scale conflict, and, in any event, Hun Sen has such tight control of the security forces at this point, and of society, that war is impossible.

For years, I thought the KR tribunal was still worth it, despite its long delays, despite the fact that Pol Pot died in the jungle without any real trial, despite the possibility that many of the top KR leaders were so old that they would never do any real jail time, and despite the significant expense of the process (paid by foreign donors). It might not cure impunity in Cambodia, but it would make a statement, it would reach a broader audience in Cambodia that had not learned about the Pol Pot era, and it would lead to real, important confessions like those of former jailer Kaing Kek Iev (better known as Duch). But now, with the tribunal becoming ever more of a farce, I'm starting to change my mind.

This article originally appeared at, an Atlantic partner site.

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Joshua Kurlantzick is fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at “Asia Unbound.”

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