Cambodia observed a moment of silence Friday to remember the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge. Even though more than 25 years have elapsed since the ouster of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is only now beginning the process of trying those responsible for Cambodia's killing fields. A senior U.S. diplomat is urging the Cambodian government and the United Nations to uphold international standards in selecting judges for a tribunal.
The U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper, came to the Cambodian capital this week to discuss with government officials the conditions for U.S. involvement in a trial of former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The Khmer Rouge killed more than 1.5 million people from overwork, starvation or murder between 1975 and 1979, as it annihilated Cambodia's intellectual class, monetary system and culture in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
Mr. Prosper says Washington would like to be part of the tribunal process.
"The United States hopes and wants to be in a position, where we will be able to support this, both politically and financially," he said. "But in order to do so, as many of you know, we need to believe, and our Congress needs to be shown, that this process will meet international standards."
Mr. Prosper says the United States would consider supporting the trial only if it is fair and free of corruption and political manipulation - a stiff requirement for a country criticized by the United Nations and the World Bank for rampant graft in its government and judicial system.
The U.S. official said the appointment of independent Cambodian judges would be critical in determining whether the process meets international standards. Mr. Prosper said the United Nations should use similar standards in choosing its judges for the tribunal.
"We hope that the United Nations takes great care as it evaluates the candidates for the positions here," he said. " Because what we don't need is for international personnel here to complicate matters, or make them worse."
The executive secretary to the Cambodian government's Khmer Rouge tribunal task force, Sean Visoth, says the government is aware of the weaknesses of its legal system. He says Cambodia and the United Nations had worked hard to set criteria for selecting judges who would meet the highest standards.
Still, human rights groups have expressed concern that the judges and prosecutors chosen would be susceptible to pressure from the government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier.
Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, died in 1998. But the court could try his top comrades, including Nuon Chea, the second in command, former Khmer Rouge president Khieu Samphan and ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary, who are all still free.
The $56 million trial is set to last three years once it begins, but the process is stalled due to a lack of funds. U.N. member nations have pledged about $38 million, with Cambodia expected to provide the rest of the money. The government is calling on donor countries for aid to fulfill its obligation.
Mr. Prosper says the United States has no deadline to decide on whether to support the trial, as it waits for Cambodia to present its selection of judges.