The Cambodian-UN war crimes trials are finally over

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.

At the end of last month, as the New York Times reported, “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 people compete for second place after Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, Poles, homosexuals and gypsies. 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 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 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 together 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 centre piece 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. (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 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 it 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 had 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. For the special UN tribunal for Rwanda, set up after the massacre of the Tutsi people by Hutus, it will be probably 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 properly measure that. It is the same with our own domestic crime, although common sense tells us that without the 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, nor ISIS, nor 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 peoples of ex-Yugoslavia. Serbia and Kosovo have recently clashed again and in Bosnia Sunday’s 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.

As the Cambodians are doing, countries need to educate their peoples 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 the 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.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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