No justice, no peace

We've left Vietnam and are now in Cambodia, which makes Vietnam feel positively western. The hotel we are staying at in Phnom Penh feels like something straight out of the British Raj. Built in the 1920's, it is laden with dark wood, vast cool, echoing spaces, and a gorgeous terrace upon which we breakfasted this morning in the shade of palm trees. At night, mosquitoes buzz languorously about my room. I sleep covered in thin cotton sheets and a heavy application of Deep Woods Off. Malaria may not be much of a problem around here, but Dengue Fever is on the march.

Obviously, the main piece of news here is the Khmer Rouge tribunal. 30 years later, Cambodia is seeking justice for Pol Pot's monstrous experiment.

The tribunal has been long awaited, but that doesn't mean it has been greeted with excitement in all quarters. Many of the human rights advocates who have been pushing for it have now washed their hands of the matter, declaring that it is going to be a farce. Cambodia's judicial system is in it's infancy; no one's clear on whether it can handle this trial.

The US government has so far declined to fund the tribunals, which was a big topic of discussion today when we met with the US Ambassador. So far the American State Department has not certified the tribunal's judicial setup to Congress (a prerequisite for obtaining funding). There are a lot of worries about the tribunal's french-style setup, which gives judges more leeway and permits the tribunal to somewhat curtail transparency--many of the documents, for example, will apparently not be released to the public. Nonetheless, one US official indicated that the embassy has recommended certification to Washington.

But that leaves problems with the administrative side: there have been allegations of corruption, specifically that some of the tribunal staff are unqualified, and have obtained their jobs through patronage or purchase. So it's not clear that the American government will come through with funds even if the judicial side gets the good housekeeping seal of approval.

Everyone we've spoken to so far has emphasized the shocking, nearly unique, absence of strong institutions in Cambodia. As the ambassador told us, "When the Khmer Rouge said they would take this country back to Year Zero, they did it." The country is still passing thousands of laws a year and struggling with land reform to replace just the basic legal infrastructure that was destroyed when Pol Pot came to power.

Cambodia needs to build its institutions for a lot of reasons--economic growth, democratic principle, social re-engagement--but this tribunal highlights the shortfall in a particularly painful way. It's very possible that it would be more effective five or ten years from now, when the government has had some chance to make headway on anti-corruption efforts and judicial procedures are more established. But "more effective" at what? Justice is now racing against time; the perpetrators are in their sixties, or later, in a country where life expectancies are under fifty. The deaths of over a million Cambodians demand some answer while the prosecution can still do something to the perpetrators besides spit on their graves.