Friday, April 17, 2015

Cambodia, Land of Orphans

In August of 2014, former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, Nuon Chea, and former President of Democratic Kampuchea, Khieu Samphan, were convicted of crimes against humanity. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the United Nations-backed tribunal consisting of international and Cambodian which was launched in 2006 to investigate the Khmer Rouge's crimes, found the two former officials guilty of extermination, forced transfer, political persecution, and attacks against human dignity.

Chea and Samphan, respectively known as "Brother Number Two" and "Brother Number Four," were senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime which was in power between 1975-1979. Nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population is believed to have died from starvation, forced labor, and execution as the Khmer Rouge attempted to reboot society to the "Year Zero." In an effort to establish an agrarian utopia, the regime instituted radical social-engineering policies aimed to rid Cambodia of "money, family ties, religion, education, property, and foreign influence." What happened instead was the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Chea and Samphan join Kaing Guek Eav as the only three convictions the ECCC have rendered thus far. Eav was convicted in 2010 for war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, and torture. All three men have received life sentences.

Cambodian-American human rights lawyer Theary Seng describes Cambodia as a "land of orphans" where nearly two generations of men grew up "learning little more than how to kill." Long after Pol Pot's government fled the capital, speaking of the Khmer Rouge was considered taboo and even today the genocide of the regime is not taught in schools.

Though the ECCC was intended to create a space for healing to begin, for many the trials are considered "too little, too late." What is also frustrating for the courts and victims seeking justice is the constant interference by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sen, a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander, has warned that civil war could break out in Cambodia if the tribunal pursues further cases against former regime leaders. He has been a vociferous critic of the 003 and 004 investigations, two cases involving five additional suspects. The Cambodian government has multiple times expressed opposition to the cases moving forward, resulting in two international judges stepping down from their roles at the ECCC with both citing political interference as their reasons.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has before warned that the ECCC investigations could lead to civil war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians. However, what Prime Minister Sen fails to address is the fact that under international law, Cambodia is obligated to prosecute suspects of mass human rights violations and initiatives taken to prevent such investigations of these allegations are violations of these obligations. The Cambodian government may want to leave the Khmer Rouge in the past; Cambodia and the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime, however, cannot begin to heal or obtain closure without recognizing the atrocities that were allowed to take place between 1975-1979. While nobody can speak for the dead or bear testimony firsthand to the pain, agony, and suffering that those who were executed experienced, allowing the ECCC to carry out its mission in bringing those responsible to justice demonstrably illustrates the priceless value of human dignity. Guilty verdicts will not raise the dead, reunite families, nor will they change what happened during Pol Pot's reign of terror. They can, however, stand as a testament to the unflinching resolve of a global society to stand up in the face of evil for the sake of human dignity and keep mankind vigilant to prevent such heinous acts from scarring the history of humanity again.

#Cambodia #KhmerRouge #KillingFields #HumanRights

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