The Cambodian strongman is no stranger to manipulating U.N. processes; he very deftly clung to power after U.N.-organized elections in the early 1990s

Cambodia's Strongman

Sovereignty strikes back

Thursday, October 28, 2010
By David Bosco
Foreign Policy

At a meeting this week in Cambodia, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon got an earful from Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, who insisted that the U.N. tribunal currently trying former members of the Khmer Rouge regime wrap up its work. The Cambodian strongman is no stranger to manipulating U.N. processes; he very deftly clung to power after U.N.-organized elections in the early 1990s. Now he's arguing that continued investigations might jeopardize national security and exacerbate deepening political divisions within the government.
The Cambodia tribunal is designed to be free from political pressure but would have a tough time operating in the face of active government opposition. Ban today put the best face on the situation:




"I had a good discussion on this matter twice with the Prime Minister Hun Sen, and also [the] deputy prime minister this morning, and I can tell you that the government of Cambodia is committed to completion of the process," he said. "The United Nations will discuss this matter with the international community members, particularly donors. That is what I can tell you at this stage."


Hun Sen's gambit is just part of a broader pushback against international justice: Hezbollah and Syria are working to shut down the U.N.-mandated investigation into Rafik Hariri's assassination, and some toughs in Beirut just beat up international investigators; China is lobbying hard -- and apparently with some success -- to torpedo an international inquiry into Myanmar's human rights record; and a number of African leaders (including some court members) are circumventing the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudan's president.


The response from the advocates of international justice has been muted. Facing the possibility of renewed north-south violence in Sudan, the Obama administration needs to negotiate with Khartoum and mostly keeps quiet about the Bashir indictment. Both the United States and Europe are understandably reluctant to make international justice a priority in relations with China. And Europe itself has in some respects turned away from a broad concept of universal jurisdiction for international crimes. Britain may amend its law to avoid awkward confrontations with foreign leaders. Spain has even put crusading judge Baltasar Garzón -- who became famous trying to right international wrongs in Spanish courts -- under investigation. We are a long way from the heady days of the Pinochet prosecution.


It turns out that the countries and leaders most supportive of international justice either didn't fully understand the implications of the process or don't have much appetite for the hard political work necessary to make it stick. For their part, emerging powers like India and Brazil are lukewarm on the phenomenon in the first place and certainly not inclined to expend any political capital on it.


All of which raises the unsettling possibility that "international justice" was more a moment than an enduring movement.

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