The world stake in Khmer Rouge convictions

Global progress in seeking justice after mass atrocities gained a step with the first verdict against senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

AP Photo
Cambodians wait to to enter the courtroom at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 7.

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.