Khmer Rouge trials should spur reforms

The double sorrow of Cambodia's "killing fields" lies in the four years of unrelenting genocide which ended in 1979 and the 35 subsequent years of deferred justice. What closure that was brought about recently was so little and so late that many younger Cambodians barely reacted when the two most senior surviving leaders of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime were finally found guilty of crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

Execution and torture, combined with widespread starvation and disease, killed 1.7 million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the population, when the Khmer Rouge seized power. The sheer vastness of the tragedy called for a determined and speedy response from the United Nations-backed court that started the work of investigating the war crimes in 2006, after much foot-dragging over nine years.

Yet, there have been only three convictions in all - arising from Case 001 and Case 002 - despite more than US$200 million (S$249 million) poured in by international donors to help ensure that Khmer Rouge atrocities did not go unanswered. The weak operations of the Phnom Penh-based court, systematic corruption of Cambodian staff, and official obstructionism make for sorry reading. International judges have resigned, disillusionment is affecting the further contribution of funds, and potential defendants have died or have been declared unfit to stand trial.

What time remains for the tribunal to continue functioning should be used by Cambodians to ponder the wrenching deficiencies that surfaced and the critiques of international observers on the weak rule of law that generally exists.

Reforms to the nation's legal and judicial system are needed to deliver the fair and equitable justice people crave. For example, public unease remains over the unsolved deaths of the nation's leading environmental activist and of investi-gative journalists killed in the line of duty.

Applying the law transparently and consistently will also help attract investments as Cambodia opens up its narrow-based economy and modernises. For example, land reforms are essential to help develop its middle class - only about 20 per cent of Cambodians have land titles - and to deal with land conflicts involving foreign investors. Vast areas of land, affecting more than 400,000 land dwellers, have been leased to businesses that are said to have close links with powerful politicians, according to rights group Licadho.

Those with legitimate grievances need clarity about legal rights and the remedies available, ready access to the courts, and swift dispensation of justice.