Of all the mass atrocities since World War II, those perpetuated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 stand out for their cruelty and the number who died (more than a million). On Thursday, after 35 years of delay, some semblance of justice was finally served with the first conviction of two senior leaders of that regime.
The two men, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, were given life sentences for their roles in murder and mass extermination, or what became known as Cambodia’s “killing fields.” Led by the late Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was an example of communist ideology at its worst, on par with the current regime in North Korea. Yet because of such recent atrocities, the world today has a stronger consensus on the need to deter mass crimes through the application of universal values of justice. The Cambodian convictions are the latest example, even if coming far too late.
The special tribunal, set up only in 2006, was a weak model of justice. It’s been hamstrung by Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former mid-level Khmer Rouge worker, who feared the court might reach officials in government who worked under Pol Pot. As a result, the court was often underfunded. And the jurists had to work under a hybrid of Cambodian and international standards.
Yet despite the obstacles, the court served many purposes.
For victims of the Khmer Rouge, the trial helped bring a record of the regime’s crimes, some retribution, and, perhaps eventually, reparations. And the process itself showed Cambodians and others that no person is above the law, especially those laws now recognized worldwide, such as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 that limit mass barbarity.
Since the 1990s, many countries and tribunals have attempted to deal with the legacy of mass crimes, either through international and domestic criminal trials, amnesties, or truth commissions. After the imperfect results of special courts for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the United Nations set up the International Criminal Court in 2002. It was designed to bring uniformity to trials of those who commit war crimes, such as genocide. The ICC, which achieved its first verdict in 2012, has yet to prove its ability to deter mass human rights abuses.
Still, with each judicial triumph, no matter how small, such courts show that the world has further embraced the goal of achieving justice against those who violate others on mass scale. The process may not yet be perfect. But the ideal of moral perfection is now in play. The people of Cambodia are one more people who have gained some ownership of it.