By Alexis Herr, Ph.D.
Hearings began on October 17, 2014 for Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Samphan and Chea are the most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge (KR), the group responsible for murdering some 1.7 million Cambodians (21% of the country’s population) during the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979. The trial, a joint effort of the United Nations and Cambodian government, sheds light on the difficulty of obtaining justice in the wake of mass atrocity.
The significance of the location of the trial in Cambodia’s capital city deserves greater attention. The Khmer Rouge’s forceful evacuation of Phnom Penh in March 1975 remains a touchtone of the regime’s extremism. The capital city was literally emptied. Members of the Khmer Rouge sorted the evacuees into class: (1) individuals with Full Rights or penh sith (approximately 15% of the population, primarily peasants and farmers); (2) candidates for full rights or triem; and (3) those without rights or bannheu. People in category 3 were Cambodians that the regime deemed “city dwellers,” individuals considered “intellectuals,” and people suspected of supporting the West. The vast majority of the bannheu died from forced labor, starvation, exposure, torture, and direct murder. No one at that time could have guessed that four decades later, the symbolic city of KR extremism, would house the trials of some its key perpetrators.
The passage of time between the fall of the KR and the trials has weakened the possibility of achieving a semblance of justice after the genocide. It took 30 years for Cambodia and the international community to address the atrocity in a legal setting and by that time Pol Pot, the chief architect of the genocide, had died (1998). Indeed, it was not until 1999 that the United Nations even recommended holding trials, the first of which convened in 2007.
A host of political, social, cultural, and economic roadblocks stalled the trials from taking place earlier, however, I argue that there is still value to holding perpetrators accountable even if it takes forty or more years to do so. Trials like those taking place in present day Cambodia will never make up for the violence committed during the genocide, but they do offer an opportunity to reevaluate the causes of the atrocity, strengthen our ability to hold perpetrators accountable, and create an account of the genocide that will become an important resource for future scholars of the genocide. Genocide prevention has become a focus of human rights organizations and the better we understand the causes of atrocity the more likely we will be able to see the warning signs and act to circumvent genocide.
The Cambodian Genocide demonstrates that the preconditions of genocide are not limited to events within the country at question. The United States played a supporting role in setting the scene for the Cambodian Genocide. As a nation, we have much to learn about how our involvement in conflicts beyond our boarders (in this case, I am referring to Vietnam and the Cold War) have a long lasting impact that we would do best to consider more carefully. This seems even more relevant when we consider our nation’s actions in Syria today.
Holding trials, even of perpetrators who may die of old age on the stand, will hopefully strengthen a global resolve to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes. If leaders of genocide knew their actions would have to be answered for, would they still commit genocide? Perhaps. But the possibility of a different outcome is worth striving for.
And lastly, as a historian, I cannot stress enough the value that trial transcripts hold for future researchers of genocide. Trial transcripts of Holocaust perpetrators, for example, have proved an import asset in figuring out details of the Judeocide not discussed anywhere else. They also serve as an important resource for those interested in understanding perpetrators as the accused are often are asked to testify.
I can say with confidence that the trials of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea will not achieve full justice because no punishment can erase or make up for the violence and loss of life under the KR. I can also state with confidence that these trials are worthwhile, of great value, and worth pursing because they have the promise of achieving something beyond justice.
For More Information on the Cambodian Genocide, See:
Alexander Hinton and Robert Jay Lifton, Why Did the Kill?: Cambodia in the Shadow of Genocide (University of California Press, 2004).
Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rough, 1975-79 (Yale University Press, 2008).