PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia and the United Nations signed an agreement yesterday that would create the first genocide trials for former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, whose reign of terror resulted in an estimated 1.7 million deaths.
The agreement, six years after Cambodia asked for U.N. help in creating a tribunal, must be ratified by the legislature, and officials warn it may be a long time before the trials convene. But the accord provides a measure of hope that some of those responsible for atrocities will be prosecuted.
“It’s time for justice to be done, because it has been too long already,” Heang Vuthy, a 20-year-old student, said as he toured a museum that once served as a torture center for the regime.
Sok An, Cambodia’s chief negotiator of the pact, and Hans Corell, the U.N. chief legal counsel, signed the agreement in an auditorium before an audience of 500 that included students, government officials, diplomats and representatives of nongovernmental organizations.
“For some, this moment may bring back painful memories of the past and cause deep sorrow,” Mr. Corell said. “For others, it may be the question: Did we not know? Could we not have prevented what happened? What did we do to stop the atrocities?”
No leaders of the Khmer Rouge, which held power from 1975 to 1979, have faced trial for a brutal rule that led to the death of nearly a quarter of the population. Surviving members of the regime live freely after surrendering before the movement’s collapse in 1998.
Under the agreement with the United Nations, a majority of judges will be Cambodians, but at least one foreign judge must support any tribunal ruling — a formula intended to protect the nation’s sovereignty while ensuring international standards of justice.
“Their wait is not over yet,” Mr. Corell said, referring to Cambodia’s people, “but hopefully it is fast nearing an end.”