The United Nations-backed tribunal in Cambodia dealing with mass killings and other crimes committed under the Khmer Rouge three decades ago is crucial in the world’s fight against impunity, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in the South-East Asian nation today.
As many as 2.2 million people are believed to have died during the 1975-79 rule of the Khmer Rouge, which was then followed by a protracted period of civil war in the impoverished country.
Under an agreement signed by the UN and the Government, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) was set up as an independent court using a mixture of Cambodian staff and judges and foreign personnel. It is designated to try those deemed most responsible for crimes and serious violations of Cambodian and international law between 17 April 1975 and 6 January 1979.
“You are helping the people of Cambodia continue the process of reconciliation and build a peaceful and prosperous future,” the Secretary-General told the Court today.
“Your work is vital in the world’s fight against impunity.”
He said that it is nearly impossible to describe what took place in Cambodia in the 1970s, underlining the need for accountability for the “shocking” crimes.
“As a young person at the time, I was horrified” by the sheer scale of the killings and the incomprehensible inhumanity, Mr. Ban said.
He acknowledged that, as with all UN-assisted criminal tribunals, it is impossible to try all offenders.
“Nevertheless, putting the senior Khmer Rouge leaders on trial, even 30 years after, is itself a powerful message, a message that impunity will not be tolerated – neither by the people of Cambodia and their Government, nor by the United Nations and the international community.”
The Secretary-General pointed to some key accomplishments the ECCC has made so far.
In its first verdict handed down in July, the Court found Kaing Guek Eav guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Also known as Duch, the head of a notorious detention camp run by the Khmer Rouge was given a 35-year prison term.
“This victory is significant – not only for the many thousands of people who died or were imprisoned in Toul Sleng prison, but also for survivors everywhere,” Mr. Ban, who will visit the Genocide Museum at the prison site, said. “They can see justice being done.”
He noted that Cambodians want to see justice done, with 31,000 people having attended Duch’s trial, with many more having watched from afar.
In September, the ECCC indicted the four most senior members of the Democratic Kampuchea regime who are still alive for crimes against humanity, genocide, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, as well as for violations of the 1956 Cambodian penal code, including murder, torture and religious persecution.
“Let us send a power signal to anyone, anywhere, who might commit such crimes in the future,” the Secretary-General said.
Earlier today in the capital, Phnom Penh, he discussed the need for the Government’s full cooperation and respect for the Court and its independence with Prime Minister Hun Sen, stressing that this is vital to enable the body to enjoy international support and to leave a strong legacy in Cambodia.
The ECCC, he stressed, was set up to be fully independent and that even the Secretary-General should not seek to influence its decisions in any way.
Human rights were also a focus of their talks, with Mr. Ban expressing appreciation for the Cambodian Government’s cooperation with all human rights mechanisms. He also emphasized the importance of creating political space for public debate, including on human rights.
The Secretary-General underlined the essential public advocacy role of the UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), stressing the notable role and value of its Phnom Penh office.
Other issues discussed between the two men today included the important role the UN has played since 1993 in the area of elections in Cambodia, the situation in Myanmar and the partnership between the world body and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Mr. Ban is in the region for a four-nation trip that started in Thailand and will also take him to Viet Nam and China.