Sunday, April 20, 2014

Japan’s support for Khmer Rouge trials is vital part of Asian leadership

At least 1.7 million Cambodians, over a fifth of the population, lost their lives during the four-year rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79).

Millions of others were forcibly transferred to the countryside and treated like slaves. They were forced to work long hours in harsh conditions without pay, and denied the freedom to practice their religion, to choose whom they would marry and even to eat with their families. Countless thousands were starved, tortured or raped.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was established by the United Nations and the Royal Government of Cambodia with the mandate to bring to justice the senior leadership of the Khmer Rouge regime and those most responsible for the crimes committed during their rule.

The ECCC owes a great debt to the leadership and generosity of the Japanese government and its people. Japan has been the leading donor to the ECCC, funding almost 40 percent of its total budget. Japanese professionals have served in key positions in the court, including as a judge in the Supreme Court Chamber.

Although the Japanese financial contribution to the court was understandably greatly reduced following the devastating 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, Japan remains an important donor and is seen by many as the “Ashinaga-Ojisan” that has helped the Cambodian victims pursue their dream of seeing justice for the Khmer Rouge atrocities within their lifetimes. We, the Co-Prosecutors of the ECCC, wish to express our sincere appreciation for all that Japan has done in order to bring a measure of justice to the Cambodian people.

Other international courts have been established to deal with the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Lebanon. The International Criminal Court is dealing with crimes of atrocity in eight African countries but its jurisdiction is limited to crimes committed after July 2002.

The ECCC is the only internationalized tribunal now in operation in Asia. Among all these tribunals, the ECCC deals with crimes involving the greatest number of victims, faces the unique challenge of investigating events that occurred over 35 years ago, yet operates with the smallest budget.

The proceedings at the ECCC deal with charges that are among the most grave and complex to ever be heard in an international court. In the first years of operation, ECCC Co-Prosecutors initiated investigations against those believed to be the “senior leadership” and “most responsible” for the crimes.


Proceedings in these cases have advanced but much work remains to be done.

Comrade Duch, the commander of the S-21 security center where over 12,000 individuals were tortured and killed, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. A second trial against Nuon Chea, “Brother Number Two” of the Khmer Rouge regime, and Khieu Samphan, the former head of state, is ongoing.

Because of the complexity and breadth of the charges, the trial judges ordered the case be tried in phases. Currently, the Trial Chamber is preparing verdicts on the first phase, involving the forced displacement of millions of Cambodians in the first year of the regime and one associated massacre. It is also anticipated that the trial of the remaining charges, including genocide, rapes, forced marriages and the persecution of Buddhists, will begin this year using the evidence from the first phase to expedite the proceedings.

While the number of those who can be tried by the ECCC is limited, the importance of the court to Cambodian society is immense. Cambodians old enough to have lived through the nightmare of the regime hope to see the organizers of the violence face justice. Millions born after the fall of Pol Pot want to understand the cause of the atrocities that so affected their parents and grandparents.

Japanese leadership is critical for the continued development of international justice. As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently noted, Japan has encouraged non-military solutions to disputes in the region and benefited from peace for more than two generations. Rising from the ashes of a devastating war, Japan has demonstrated how a country based on the rule of law can build an economy and democracy that rank among the most advanced in the world.

The Cambodian people feel a duty to remember and honor the victims of the Khmer Rouge cataclysm, just as the Japanese people feel a duty to remember their countrymen killed by the only atomic bomb attacks the world has known. Cambodians appreciate Japan’s essential support for efforts to bring Khmer Rouge leaders responsible for the crimes to justice. We, the Co-Prosecutors, resolve to honor those who died by doing all we can to ensure that the horrendous crimes of the Pol Pot era are never forgotten and never repeated.

International Co-Prosecutor at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

Nicholas Koumjian is the International Co-Prosecutor at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, a hybrid court trying crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge regime. Over the past 14 years he has worked at international criminal tribunals dealing with war crimes in Bosnia, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Darfur, following 20 years as a prosecutor in Los Angeles.


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