Despite a four-decade delay in justice, a United Nations-backed court established on Friday that the Khmer Rouge had indeed committed genocide in Cambodia during its reign. The two most senior and surviving leaders of the radical group, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, were convicted of the most heinous of crimes – the killing of innocent minority groups en mass in the late 1970s.
The verdict may further assist Cambodians in coming to terms with their “killing field” past. It might also reduce impunity in a country still ruled by a former lower-level Khmer Rouge figure, Hun Sen. Yet it should also ring loudly everywhere as a reminder to prevent genocide in the future.
For many, that future is now. In Myanmar, the regime has continued a campaign of genocide against Rohingya Muslims who remain in the country, according to UN investigators. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State was defeated only last year after trying to eliminate the Yazidi minority. In China, some members of the Uyghur community say Beijing is committing “cultural genocide” by detaining tens of thousands of the minority Muslims in “reeducation” camps.
Genocide is difficult to prove in court. Prosecutors must prove intent. Verdicts like those against the Khmer Rouge leaders are rare. Yet they help affirm the progress over recent decades in holding people accountable for gross violations of human rights.
“Overall there is less violence and fewer human rights violations in the world than there were in the past,” writes human-rights scholar Kathryn Sikkink of Harvard University in her latest book, “Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century,” based on extensive review of historical data.
Most countries now accept treaties on human rights even if they do not always enforce them. And since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the UN has set up more international courts like the one for Cambodia to try perpetrators under the idea that human rights are universal. The result, says Ms. Sikkink, is a steady decline in genocide.
More than 80,000 Cambodians attended the long trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders over four years. The courtroom crowd was witness to the application of a law that holds true far beyond their borders. This latest affirmation of that law can now more easily help protect other peoples facing genocide or similar crimes. It might also make leaders tempted to commit mass slaughter think twice.