The International Judgment of Khmer Rouge Leaders for Genocide, by Ben Kiernan

Professeur d’histoire, Ben Kiernan est le fondateur et directeur du programme sur le génocide cambodgien de l’Université Yale (Etats-Unis). Reconnu comme l’un des plus grands spécialistes internationaux de cette question et à ce titre invité par les universités et centres de recherche les plus prestigieux à travers le monde, il est l’auteur de nombreux ouvrages dont How Pol Pot Came to Power (1985), The Pol Pot Regime (1996), Le Génocide au Cambodge (1998) et Genocide and Resistance in Southeast Asia (2008).

Né en Australie, il est le premier titulaire de la chaire d’études transrégionales de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales et de l’IMéRA. Informations sur son projet :

Ben Kiernan, résident IMéRA/EHESS 2018-2019, a publié cet article le 15 février 2019 dans le numéro 51 de la revue du RFEIA sur le thème “Emotions, savoirs et apprentissages”.

The International Judgment of Khmer Rouge Leaders for Genocide

The news on November 16th, 2018 from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the mixed UN-Cambodian tribunal in Phnom Penh, was itself mixed. The court found two leading Khmer Rouge defendants guilty of genocide, the most heinous crime. On the other hand, it seems likely that the ECCC will try no further cases.

Why is this jugment a major development?

These two former high-ranking leaders of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979) who have now been convicted of genocide are very big fish indeed. For thirty-six years, Nuon Chea served as Pol Pot’s deputy, occupying the No. 2 position in what became the Communist Party of Kampuchea, from 1962 until Pol Pot’s death in 1998. Khieu Samphan, for his part, was the head of state of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1976 to 1979.

The court’s finding that two separate cases of genocide occurred under Khmer Rouge rule is also a major development. Several scholars have long argued that Pol Pot’s regime committed other crimes, but not genocide. The ECCC has instead concluded that two of Cambodia’s ethnic minority groups, the ethnic Vietnamese and the Cham Muslims, each suffered genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge regime.

These two senior accomplices of Pol Pot have now been convicted of both genocide and, in an earlier ECCC judgment, crimes against humanity. In addition, Duch, the former commandant of their regime’s central, secret prison, known as “S-21,” is already serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2010 of crimes against humanity. These three convictions, though delayed for nearly four decades, now offer some significant measure of justice for the victims.

Will other Khmer Rouge leaders be judged ?

In recent years three other senior Khmer Rouge leaders have been arrested and jailed. Two of them, Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, both senior ministers in Pol Pot’s government, also faced trial or at least the prospect of a trial, although they didn’t live to face judgment. Ieng Sary, deputy Prime Minister of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, died in prison in 2013 during his trial for crimes against humanity. He too had been additionally charged with genocide, for which he was scheduled to face a second trial. His wife Ieng Thirith was also jailed, but her trial didn’t proceed, only because the court found her to be mentally debilitated and unfit to be tried. She died in 2015. The Khmer Rouge’s top military commander, Mok, was arrested in 1999 and died in jail in 2006, awaiting prosecution. Only Pol Pot himself, and one other senior leader, Ke Pauk, escaped arrest. Both died before the ECCC tribunal was set up.

Can it be considered as a form of impunity for the crimes committed by the Khmers Rouges between 1975 and 1979?

In 1979 and during the 1980s, tens of thousands, perhaps up to 40,000 lower-ranking Khmer Rouge members served time in Cambodian jails or detention in re-education camps. These were not life sentences, nor were they the result of judgments of a court. But in many cases, the prisoners served at least several years. While travelling extensively in Cambodia in the 1980s, I learned of many examples of Khmer Rouge officers and troops who had been captured, arrested, or detained, for instance in re-education camps. This was not a matter of Khmer Rouge impunity.

When critics of the ECCC and/or of the Cambodian government today talk about Khmer Rouge impunity, they mean that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is preventing further ECCC trials of relatively second-rank and third-rank officials in 2019. This is true.

Does the West bear any responsability in this delayed justice ?

Yes, and sadly, there is no longer much discussion of how from 1975 to 1992, China, the West, and their allies supported the Khmer Rouge regime’s right to hold the Cambodian seat in the United Nations, and thus allowed that genocidal regime to represent its victims to the world. For the last thirteen of those years, long after the Khmer Rouge regime had been driven from power, the Khmer Rouge’s handpicked ambassador still occupied Cambodia’s UN seat. The Khmer Rouge flag flew over New York while the Pol Pot forces retained their army on the Thai border and threatened to retake power in Cambodia.

That coalition of international support for the Khmer Rouge is the reason Pol Pot himself never had to face trial, right up until he died in his sleep in 1998. Although Australia raised the prospect of an international tribunal in 1986, and gained some Southeast Asian support for the idea from both Indonesia and Malaysia, the United States denounced the idea and refused to support any trial of the Khmer Rouge until 1994, and the UN did not make plans for a tribunal until 1999.

By then, Hun Sen’s Cambodian government army had defeated the Khmer Rouge army and forced its surviving leaders to surrender, which they did in 1999. That is how they came to face trial and finally meet the judgement of the ECCC tribunal, a hybrid body whose creation the UN subsequently negotiated with the Cambodian government. Even then, for a year the Cambodian opposition held up the agreement in the country’s National Assembly.

Justice delayed is justice denied. All sides, Cambodian and international, bear responsibility for these long delays and denials. But for many victims of the top Khmer Rouge leadership, an important measure of justice has come at last and did bring some important recognition to the outrageously inhumane sufferings endured by the Cambodian people during the genocide years of the late 1970s.

Ben Kiernan

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