The Killing Fields & the Search for Justice

For eight years, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal has attempted to find some kind of justice for those who died under Pol Pot’s ruthless regime, with some success, and at times fought a difficult battle against its detractors. As Communications Officer for the Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC), Lars Olsen is charged with disseminating information and handling perceptions of the proceedings. He spoke with The Edge Review’s correspondent Luke Hunt.

The Edge Review: Your native Norway is a long way from Cambodia. Why did you decide to move here and take-up the position as Communications Officer with the ECCC?

Olsen: All over the world people have heard about the killing fields in Cambodia. When you get a chance to participate in a historic justice process, the choice to move far from home is easy.

The Edge Review: What are your earliest memories of the Khmer Rouge, who ruled between April 1975 and January 1979, and what they did to Cambodia?

Olsen: I recall hearing Pol Pot’s name mentioned while in primary school, but it was when we were first introduced to world history, at around the age of 14, that I really learned anything about what had happened in Cambodia. The first news report I clearly remember was from when Ieng Sary defected to the government in 1996 – two years before three decades of war finally came to an end.

The Edge Review: The hybrid nature of the court – a mix of Cambodian and United Nations’ judges, lawyers and funding – has been rebuked by different parties who’d rather see one or the other running the tribunal. Why was the hybrid formula introduced?

Olsen: Unlike other tribunals created through international intervention, the UN involvement in the ECCC process was initiated by a request from the Cambodian government. The United Nations initially proposed to create an international tribunal modeled similarly on tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, but there was no international consensus for this, and the idea was strongly rejected by the Cambodian government. The hybrid model was chosen after years of negotiations.

The Edge Review: The process is underway that could result in charges of genocide for the most senior surviving leaders, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, in addition to crimes against humanity for which they are already awaiting a verdict. Other less senior leaders from the regime are also expected to be charged. How many more people can the tribunal realistically prosecute and how long can the ECCC maintain its operations?

Olsen: In addition to the five persons already indicted, two additional cases with a handful of suspects are currently under investigation, and this can potentially lead to additional trials. The co-prosecutors have said they do not intend to initiate further cases. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon informed the General Assembly late last year that the indicative court schedule projects judicial activity until 2018, and possibly beyond.

The Edge Review: The tribunal has already cost more than US$200 million. Some say that is a lot of money, others say it is realistic and comparable with costs to build one bridge over the Mekong River or about US$100 for every person killed by the Khmer Rouge. Has it cost too much?

Olsen: It is difficult to put a price tag on justice and reconciliation. All experience shows that complex legal proceedings involving multiple suspects accused of crimes against humanity and genocide are resource-intensive. In terms of absolute costs, the ECCC is amongst the least expensive of all of our “sister-tribunals.” Is it worth it? I think we can only assess that once we have completed our mandate.

The Edge Review: The Cambodian government has been slow at times in meeting its financial contribution, forcing the UN to step in with a loan to the ECCC. Have those funding issues been resolved?

Olsen: During the last six months, the government has increased its contributions by also covering some of the salaries for the Cambodian staff. This is a positive step forward. There is still a funding shortfall for the national side of the court, but the government is now working closely together United Nations Special Expert David Scheffer to raise additional funds.

The Edge Review: Have you had any personal interactions or chance meetings with any of the defendants that gave you more of an insight into their personalities?

Olsen: The interaction with the defendants is strictly regulated, so it is mainly defence teams and support staff who can interact with them during breaks or outside of hearings. So although I have been in the same room with them on many occasions, we have never interacted directly. Sometimes we have received feedback from their lawyers that they have noticed some of the activities of the courts’ press office.

The Edge Review: What has been your favourite moment in court?

Olsen: Although there were mixed reactions to the initial 35-year sentence imposed on Kaing Guek Eav, the pronouncement of the first verdict in July 2010 was an emotional moment. The late Reach Sambath, my former chief and friend, had problems hiding his tears during a following press conference when he gave remarks he had prepared together with his daughter. Sambath used to say he was the spokesperson for 1.7 million ghosts, and cried not [out] of disappointment, but of relief. Having lost both his parents and all but one sibling to the regime, he worked his way from selling ice and cigarettes on a street corner in Phnom Penh to become a respected journalist with a degree from Columbia University and then Chief of the Public Affairs Section of the ECCC. Sambath’s tears on that day made me convinced that what we’re doing at the court is important to many survivors.

What I have found to be among the strongest moments, have been when some of the civil parties have testified about the suffering they endured during the regime. It is impossible not be moved by these testimonies. Also, when the survivors from S-21 during the first trial had a chance to ask questions directly to their former captor, we witnessed something truly unprecedented in modern international criminal justice.

The Edge Review: The ECCC has had more than its fair share of critics, in fact much of that criticism has bordered on hysteria at times. Issues over money and political interference have been chief among them. How much of that criticism is justified? Has there been any political interference in the tribunal process?

Olsen: There is no secret that members of the Cambodian government have clearly expressed that they don’t want to see more indictments beyond the five already issued. Such statements are not helpful, and everyone should refrain from making statements that can be perceived as an attempt to influence the proceedings. Regardless of opinions expressed, investigations in two additional cases are ongoing. Parties also have avenues to address any allegation of interference with the judges.

In fact, some critics have doomed this court since its inception. Despite the doomsday predictions about collapses and never seeing any judgments, we have already completed one case in full, and we are only months away from a judgment in the first trial against Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. We have already achieved more than what the fiercest critics ever would have expected. But we still have some distance to go before we can cross the finish line.

The Edge Review: How has the tribunal impacted on the lives of ordinary Khmers?

Olsen: There is no longer a complete taboo to discuss what happened during this very dark chapter in Cambodia’s recent history. What we experience is that many children for the first time now can ask their parents and grandparents about what they had to endure under the regime. There is no doubt that the court will not be able to fulfill all the high hopes and expectations of the survivors. But hopefully we can contribute to some sense of closure and be a catalyst for reconciliation.

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