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Human Rights in Cambodia

Gabriel Walters: Khmer Rouge Tribunal May Not Offer Justice for All

Gabriel Walters
Gabriel Walters

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Contact: Mary Wood

Third-year law student Gabriel Walters had an insider’s access to the lawyers, officials and NGO staff connected to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, but there was one problem.

“No one wanted to be on the record,” Walters said. His tape recorder often went unused and he frequently put down his pen as a show of good faith to get information about how the tribunal, a hybrid court run by Cambodia and the United Nations, operated and whether it was effective.

The court was established to give closure to victims of the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that ruled Cambodia during the 1970s and killed an estimated one to three million people and displaced many more.

“Everyone I spoke to was more than willing to give confidential information, but no one wanted to be cited, no one wanted to be on record, no one wanted to be a source of information for my paper.”

Walters had a friend who advised the tribunal on rules of procedure, which gave him access to court officials. Through information he gathered he realized the challenges facing the court.

“There have been a lot of problems with administrability,” Walters said. Considering that the entire country was affected, “there are 14 million victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. In the first trial that began in February this year, there were fewer than 200 civil parties to the proceeding.”

Individual victims can be a witness to the prosecution or a complainant, who can provide a narrative or be asked to witness. The complainant’s testimony may lead to new charges against the defendant. Victims can also be a full civil party to a proceeding.

Not all victims can or want to participate. Of the 17,000 victims of the S-21 torture chamber, only 169 civil parties have come forward against the responsible leader.

“There are also real questions of right and remedy — who has the right to bring these types of claims against these defendants,” Walters said, adding that there are issues regarding the competence of lawyers representing them.

The court has ruled there can be collective moral reparations for the victims, but not individual money damages, what Walters said was an extension of Buddhist belief and practice.

“The people who are directly participating might see some form of more or less adequate redress for the harms that they suffered, but for the people who aren’t participating, I question the court’s ability to provide them the sense of justice and the sense of closure that is so desperately needed.”