News | Khmer Rouge war criminals stand trial 30 years later

McGill expert Frederic Megret discusses the signifiicance of the UN-Cambodian tribunal

On March 30, Kaing Khev Iev, the first of six Khmer Rouge leaders, stood trial for mass murder and crimes against humanity in a landmark tribunal. Iev was the head of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S21 prison, where over 15,000 men, women, and children were tortured before being executed in the nearby “killing fields.”

From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia under the leadership of Marxist leader Pol Pot. During this period, the brutal regime forced millions of city dwellers to work on communal farms. Their vision of social engineering resulted in the killing of an estimated 700,000 people – over a third of Cambodia’s population – by execution, starvation, and overwork.

The Daily sat down with Frederic Megret, assistant professor in the Faculty of Law, and director of the McGill Clinic for the Sierra Leone Special Court, to discuss the tribunals that many hope will bring a just closure to this dark period in Cambodia’s history.

McGill Daily: Why has it taken so long to begin prosecution of crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge?

Frederic Megret: Initially the Cambodian government was not interested [because] it was still too dangerous. When the Cambodians decided that they wanted to go ahead with the trials, they wanted international legitimacy by doing this with the help of the United Nations (UN). The negotiations [between the UN and Cambodian government] dragged on for seven or eight years because they could never come to an agreement on the ideal formula. The Cambodians, I suspect, wanted international legitimacy without paying the price, [and] keeping control over who got prosecuted. The UN was adamant that certain minimum human rights standards be respected, and the rule of law guaranteed.

MD: After 30 years of waiting, what kind of interest is there in the country for the trials? How will the trials benefit the people of Cambodia?

FM: I think if you asked people before the trials you would find that most people are not really interested. The interesting thing will be to ask the same people after the trials have taken place. This isn’t simply about averting the next genocide…but it is also about averting the lesser violations of human rights that still occur routinely by creating a sense that there will be no impunity for certain crimes.

MD: Who is being tried, and for what crimes? What punishment can we expect if these suspects are found guilty?

FM: In terms of the accused, there are six. The jurisdiction is for crimes against humanity, genocide, and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. As for punishment, it will be life sentences – no death penalty.

MD: The Canadian prosecutor Robert Petit has demanded that other key suspects be tried as well. However, his motion was blocked by his Cambodian colleagues. Many believe that the motion was blocked by the Cambodians to avoid possibly implicating other individuals currently affiliated with the government.

FM: I think that this is very much a moment of truth in that the Cambodians want to keep full control over who is going to be prosecuted. They want to make sure that it is mostly small fish. They don’t want this to become an indictment of the current regime.

MD: Won’t such a limited trial undermine justice?

FM: Of course, if people who have committed grave offenses are not indicted it undermines the faith people have in justice. These sorts of tribunals were never meant to try everyone. Probably it is still the case in Cambodia that too many people were involved at all levels.

— compiled by Humera Jabir


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