Still Smiling after All Those Deaths: Philip Rees Meets an Unrepentant Ex-Khmer Rouge Leader and Finds Him Shrugging His Shoulders at the Idea of a War Crimes Trial

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Pol Pot's former deputy is a man who enjoys a good joke. "Good humour is in my nature," he told me. "I have no worries."

Nuon Chea, known as Brother Number Two, served as Pol Pot's ideologue and loyal lieutenant for more than 30 years. He lives with his wife and grandchildren in a traditional wooden house on stilts near Cambodia's border with Thailand. Now 76, he looks well and his mind remains sharp.

He is the former deputy general secretary of Cambodia's Communist Party -- known to the outside world as the Khmer Rouge. He is the most senior surviving member of the regime that governed during the time of the killing fields. Pol Pot -- Brother Number One -- died in 1998, when the Khmer Rouge finally collapsed after fighting a 20-year rebellion in the jungles of northern Cambodia.

Nuon Chea displayed no remorse when we discussed his role in the deaths of 1.7 million people -- nearly a quarter of the Cambodian nation. During our meeting he was often chuckling, and boasted: "I have never stayed awake at night or shed any tears." He said he would fear no trial for war crimes or genocide. "I want to be clean, I want to show my people that I am a good man," he declared without irony.

Nuon Chea now has reason to be confident. While Slobodan Milosevic was brought to the dock amid fanfare at The Hague, the United Nations announced that it was abandoning attempts to establish a war crimes tribunal for Cambodia. It is now unlikely that more than a tiny few of the men responsible for the carnage of the killing fields will be brought to account.

The decision of the United Nations to withdraw from Cambodia follows several years of bickering with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has insisted on maintaining control over the legal process. One of the main sticking points was the refusal of the Cambodian government to allow international law to override national legislation, particularly in respect to an amnesty granted to Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister.

The problems that have thwarted attempts to bring Pol Pot's henchmen to justice represent the first significant setback to the process of establishing ad hoc tribunals, which began in former Yugoslavia and continued in Rwanda and now Sierra Leone.

These tribunals appeared as part of a formidable trend towards a system of international justice where despots and tyrants could no longer shelter behind the protection of national sovereignty. The permanent International Criminal Court, first proposed in 1998, will become a standing reference point for all such cases if it is ratified by 60 nations.

Unless, that is, Washington has its way. The Bush administration looks ready to obstruct the workings of the proposed court. An amendment before Congress -- the American Servicemembers' Protection Act -- forbids Americans from co-operating with the court and authorises "any necessary action" to free any American soldiers who may be held in custody by the court.

Meanwhile, at The Hague, Milosevic has accused those behind the ad hoc tribunals of applying a "victor's justice". He has a point: while the legal proceedings might be impartial, these courts apply justice only when it suits the political needs of the major powers.

In 1995, Milosevic was presented as a world statesman and peacemaker at Dayton, Ohio, during the signing of the accord that ended the wars in Bosnia and Croatia. …