PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge leadership killed nearly two million people, one-fifth of the Cambodian population. In an attempt to reach Maoist ideals of a rural lifestyle and equality, the Khmer Rouge systematically targeted urban populations. Citizens were tortured and killed for not working efficiently enough. Families were separated and men and women were forced to marry. The Khmer Rouge targeted political opposition as well.
According to the United Nations, starvation, forced labor, torture and execution caused most of the deaths.
Thirty years later, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC, began trying members of the Khmer Rouge regime. Arrested in 2007, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, political leaders in Cambodia during the genocide, were placed on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The verdict for Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, both major perpetrators of the genocide, will be heard next week. The war crimes tribunal has convicted one of the leaders of the Cambodian genocide, Kaing Geuk Eav, who ran a torture center responsible for the deaths of 14,000 people.
Samphan was the head of state during Khmer Rouge leadership, and Chea was in command of propaganda and second in control to Pol Pot. Thirith was deemed unfit to stand trial, and Sary died early last year.
However, Samphan and Chea face new accusations of genocide, as Pol Pot and other political leadership allegedly targeted Vietnamese and Muslim Cham minorities.
According to The Telegraph, the Khmer Rouge killed nearly half a million Cham and executed thousands of Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese targeted by the Cambodian leadership fled the state without documentation, so they were left without state affiliation. As a result, many Vietnamese still struggle within Cambodian society as their access to education, healthcare, economic security and political participation is limited because they are undocumented.
This results in higher rates of poverty within the Vietnamese population.
Both Samphan and Chea are in their 80s, which introduces a time constraint for the trial. As more time passes, there exists a greater likelihood that the two will not face justice. Chea, for instance, does not attend hearings because he is incapable of sitting for the length of the tribunal. As a result, the trial has been divided into separate trials. This has created some doubt as to the fairness of the trial amongst attorneys.
Furthermore, these tribunals require funding from donor countries, and from 2006 to 2012, the tribunal cost $173 million. The donor countries for these tribunals are becoming less willing to contribute.
In 1948, the United Nations established the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. During the convention, genocide was defined as “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of lie calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures to prevent births within the group” and “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Despite the ability to punish genocide, it oftentimes remains unpunished and continues to occur.
Dr. Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, cites lack of political will, such as the growing reluctance of countries to pay tribunal fees, and underdeveloped international institutions as a cause.
According to Stanton, trying leaders for genocide through the International Criminal Courts, and in this case through the ECCC, “may not deter every genocidist, but it will put on warning every future tyrant who believes he can get away with mass murder.”
Genocide results in the repression of cultures, the perpetuation of poverty and the deaths of millions. However, a government’s ability and willingness to support international institutions in punishing acts of genocide can potentially prevent future crimes against humanity.
While the trial against the Khmer Rouge battles against time and financial constraints, holding these leaders accountable can have significant impact in preventing future crimes.
– Tara Wilson