Photo: Nuon Chea (left) and Khieu Samphan in the Trial Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). (file) © ECCC/Sok Heng Nhet. - Photo: 2022

Lessons of the Cambodian-UN War Crimes Trials

Viewpoint by Jonathan Power

LUND, Sweden (IDN) — Finally, finally, the over-long, fifteen-year-long trials of the leaders of the murderous Khmer Rouge leadership of Cambodia are concluded. It has been water on stone, but the conclusion is the stone has cracked.

The New York Times reported on September 22: “The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia—a United Nations-backed tribunal charged with prosecuting the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime—held its final hearing. It rejected an appeal by the ninety-one years old Khieu Samphan, the fanatical communist movement’s last surviving leader, upholding his conviction and life sentence for genocide.”

Along with Nuon Chea, he had been convicted five years ago. The appeal has taken an unbelievable time. Their original trial took the best part of ten years.

Of the other three that were tried, one, the ex-foreign minister, Ieng Sary, died in 2013, one, Ieng Thirith, the wife of Ieng Sary, was too ill with Alzheimer’s to appear, and one, Kaing Guek Eav (“Duch”), voluntarily confessed eight years ago and was sent to jail for 35 years. The Khmer Rouge’s infamous leader, Pol Pot, was long dead by the time the court was created.

In the twentieth century, two massacres of hundreds of thousands of people compete for second place after Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, Poles, homosexuals and gipsies. One is Cambodia, and the other is Rwanda. But Cambodia, where the deaths were between a million and a half and two million and the executions of around 500,000 carried out by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, probably wins this ugly contest.

A week after they took power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge forced as many as 2 million people living in the capital Phnom Penh to leave the city and work in the countryside. Thousands died during the evacuation. It was carried out in a hurried, ruthless, and merciless way, forcing the inhabitants to leave behind all their possessions. Children got separated from their parents; pregnant women gave birth with no professional assistance. The vast majority of doctors and teachers were killed. The pogrom became known as “The Killing Fields”- also the title of a brilliant movie.

The Khmer Rouge believed this was a levelling process that would turn the country into a rural, classless society. They abolished money, free markets, normal schooling, foreign clothing styles, religious practices and traditional culture. Public schools, Buddhist pagodas, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut down or turned into prisons, stables, re-education camps and granaries.

There was no public or private transportation, no private property, and no non-revolutionary entertainment. People had to wear black costumes, work more than 12 hours a day and be married in mass ceremonies with partners chosen by the party. Showing affection to family members was forbidden. Intellectuals—often singled out because they wore glasses—were executed. If more than three people gathered to have a conversation, they could be accused of being enemies and arrested, even executed.

The Khmer Rouge ruled until 1979, when they were overthrown by the Vietnamese, their neighbours.

The Khmer Rouge then fled westward and re-established their forces in Thai territory, posing as refugees. Relief agencies, including UNICEF, were taken in and fed them, enabling them to fight another day.

The US, still reeling from its defeat in the hands of North Vietnam, acted on the old adage, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Under President Jimmy Carter, the US in 1979, wanting to punish Vietnam, persuaded the UN to give the Khmer Rouge Cambodia’s seat in the General Assembly. Ironically, Carter, who became president in 1977, had said he was making human rights the centrepiece of his foreign policy.

From 1979 to 1990, the US recognised the Khmer Rouge as the only legitimate representative of Cambodia. Every Western country voted the same way as the US, with the exception of Sweden. The Soviet bloc voted against it. (There are cases of a country going unrecognised—as with the US refusing to give diplomatic recognition to Angola in the 1980s. But Western nations wouldn’t even consider that option.)

At the same time, many left-wing intellectuals and activists in the West also gave them support. They saw them as a clean communist broom sweeping out the old order.

Samantha Power, formerly the US’s ambassador to the UN, wrote in her book “A Problem From Hell” that she did not find one US official who recalled reading the UN Genocide Convention to see if events in Cambodia matched its requirements.

It wasn’t until June 1990 that James Baker, President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, announced a change in policy. Later the Big Five on the Security Council announced that Cambodia would become a UN protectorate. After laborious negotiations, the UN finally decided to set up a hybrid court with both Cambodian and international judges to put the Khmer Rouge leadership on trial.

It is a good question why the Nuremberg court that tried the Nazi leadership should only take one year, and this took fifteen years, costing $300 million. During my visit in 2014 to the court, it was the defence lawyers who were dragging out—but the judges let them.

Even now, there is to be, what the court calls, a three-year “legacy period” for public education about the trial and the reason for it. As one can see, walking around the capital, Phnom Penh, a whole generation has been effectively wiped off the map.

Only the young, now middle-aged, survived. During the trial, as I saw myself, school children were bussed in every day to see the proceedings and to watch films explaining the background. The UN wants to make sure the young can understand what has happened and thus inoculate the country against any future large-scale violence. This work should continue.

A sort of belated justice has been done, albeit a large majority of the killers have escaped prosecution. Fortunately, we now have the International Criminal Court (ICC) for trying crimes against humanity committed since 2002, when the court was founded. It is a much speedier operation, although I would say still not fast enough.

On the 30th of last month in The Hague in the Netherlands, the trial of the Rwandan, Felicien Kabuga, began. The special UN tribunal for Rwanda, set up after the massacre of the Tutsi people by Hutus, will probably be the last major trial. It has tried close to 80 cases, the big ones, convicting senior leaders. Rwandan courts and domestic courts in North America and Europe have also tried thousands of rank-and-file murderers.

For two decades, Kabuga evaded arrest until he was finally tracked down by British, French and Belgian police tracing the locations of phone calls by family members who had visited him in France. Now he is accused of being a financier and logistical backer of the groups that led the 1994 genocide. He founded and directed a popular radio station that incited Hutus to kill Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The wheels of international justice grind slowly. Do these courts act as a deterrent? There is no way to measure that properly. It is the same with our own domestic crime, although common sense tells us that without a real chance of punishment, there would be more criminals and criminality.

Clearly, the generals in Myanmar, prime minister Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia and President Assad in Syria have not been deterred. Neither have the Israelis, ISIS, the Taliban, nor President Vladimir Putin.

But maybe in Sudan, it has worked, as the army builds back its relationship with those who it used to repress. Maybe it deters Uganda from allowing its so-called “peacekeeping troops” deployed in the Congo to behave as inhumanely as they have in the past and the Hutus in Burundi and eastern Congo from starting to seek revenge against the Tutsi government of Rwanda. (At present, there are skirmishes but nothing too serious.)

Maybe the authority of the court works on the un-stilled passions of the people of ex-Yugoslavia. Serbia and Kosovo have recently clashed again, and in Bosnia, October 2 election could unleash new violence, observers report. It can’t be said for certain if the ICC is part of the deterrent effect, but clearly, there is some forces of restraint at work in all these countries.

<Photos in genocide museum of war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. Wikimedia Commons.

As the Cambodians are doing, countries need to educate their people about the International Criminal Court and its predecessors, trying cases from ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. We need more articles and programs in the media and more education in schools and universities. War crimes and human rights violations should be part of compulsory civics lessons and lectures.

The application of international law has progressed remarkably over the last 30 years. But it walks too slowly. It needs to speed up. Nevertheless, even as it is, the world is much better for it.

About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: [IDN-InDepthNews — 04 October 2022]

Photo: Nuon Chea (left) and Khieu Samphan in the Trial Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). (file) © ECCC/Sok Heng Nhet.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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