Last Thursday, Cambodia’s U.N.-backed tribunal for the Khmer Rouge resolved to uphold the genocide conviction and life sentence of the regime’s final surviving leader, Khieu Samphan. The tribunal, known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (E.C.C.C.), rejected an appeal by Samphan that alleged over 1800 procedural and bias errors, deciding that the vast majority of Samphan’s arguments were “unfounded” and determining that there had been no error in the proceedings. The ruling – sustained by a bench of seven judges – was the last in an international effort to bring justice and accountability to the crimes that decimated an estimated 25% of the Cambodian population between 1975-1979.
Many commentators point out that the judgment makes little practical difference. As Associated Press News noted, along with other publications such as the Guardian and the New York Times, Khieu Samphan is 91 and already serving another life sentence for his crimes against humanity in a separate 2014 case. When considering that this final hearing is the culmination of a lengthy litigation endeavor which began in 1997, spent over $330 million, and convicted just three people, the price of justice for such a comparatively minute redress seems disappointing.
“People are already dead,” lamented Nak, a 66-year-old man who declined to give his full name for fear of retribution. “The trial doesn’t mean anything to them. It is a waste of money to have the trial.”
“We had been hoping [the tribunal] would set the historical facts, and bring about a common understanding of what happened,” Ou Virak, a human rights activist whose father was killed by the Khmer Rouge, agreed. “But the documentation from the tribunal only really told us what we already know. … There is a yawning gap still – a silence – between the older generation that experienced the Khmer Rouge, who don’t know how to speak about it, and the younger generation which knows and cares little about what happened to their parents and grandparents.”
Nak and Virak’s assertions, though pessimistic, have merit. Besides Samphan, only two other perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror were convicted: Nuon Chea – the regime’s No.2 leader – and Kaing Guek Eav – the director of the S-21 prison where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and then executed. Notably, regime leader Pol Pot and other key instigators such as Son Sen and those within the security police and army never stood trial. Furthermore, political interferences limiting the scope of the prosecution from Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, made the E.C.C.C.’s work difficult and slow.
Still, a reality in which the tribunal never convened would be, undoubtedly, much more appalling. Without the tribunal, there would have been no forum to shed light on some of the worst crimes committed in history. There would have been no codification of the legal precedents now enshrined under international law against the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities. There would be no school curriculum teaching young Cambodians about a not-so-distant history, with the hopes of preventing the past from repeating. Ultimately, the tribunal’s biggest achievement is not the number of convictions it establishes. Rather, it is the incontestable record that will always remember these crimes.
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