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A Time for Accounting; Cambodia's War Crimes Were Second only to Hitler's



Jan. 20th, 1999

LONDON- "The arm of the moral universe is long it bends towards justice". So said Martin Luther King. And indeed, since Nuremberg and the first international court for war crimes to try Nazi leaders, the development of international human rights law has steadily improved. Justice, even if it's often two steps forward, one step back, is by the decade reaching further. The case of ex-dictator General Augusto Pinochet is now back before the law lords in London and the betting here is that they will confirm their earlier ruling that he does not have sovereign immunity. But even if the decision goes the other way it will have pushed the British and other governments to clarify the standing of international law--the treaties on genocide, torture, hostage-taking and the supression of terrorism in particular--in domestic law.

In any event the ruling ought to be overshadowed by the debate now coming to a head in the United Nations about whether or not to set up a war crimes tribunal--modeled on the two existing ones for ex-Yugoslavia and for Rwanda--to try the leaders of the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, the greatest mass murderers since the Nazis. The nightmare of Pinochet's Chile pales before the satanic practices of the Khmer Rouge. The U.S., Britain and a significant number of other coumtries are for it. But Washington may yet turn a somersault, as it did over the recent decision to establish a permanent International Criminal Court, when it realizes that some pretty dirty American behaviour could be exposed in the process.

In the four years, 1975-79, the Khmer Rouge, led by the late Pol Pot, cold-bloodedly killed one million people. Those deemed to have no place in the revolutionary order were eradicated. City dwellers were compelled to leave the towns; thousands of them died during forced marches to the countryside. Political enemies were mercilessly liquidated as were many who had done nothing. So were Buddhist monks and the Cham, an Islamic people.

Twenty thousand people were executed in the S-21 extermination center alone. I have before me records kept by the Khmer Rouge of victims killed and tortured here. Like the Nazis they were cruelly methodical. A memo from the interrogator's manual orders those in charge of torturing to get the right balance between propagandizing and torturing. It tells interrogators to keep up the victims' hopes of survival so as to make them as malleable as possible.

Eventually the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese, whose Cambodian front man, Hun Sen, still rules. It was a stern, forbidding, kind of occupation. But it ended the massacres. However, because Vietnam was the invading power--and because Vietnam was then the mortal enemy of the United States--its government was not accepted as the legitimate possessor of Cambodia's seat at the UN. For years the Khmer Rouge flag flew unmolested on New York's First Avenue. Worse than that, western governments supplied them with surplus grain through UN relief operations and the World Food Program. This international assistance was crucial in enabling the Khmer Rouge to keep fighting the Vietnamese-backed government.

Brave efforts to take the Pol Pot regime to the World Court on a charge of genocide were sidetracked. The prime movers were a group of Cambodian survivors including Dith Pran, the New York Times staff member, whose story was portrayed in the unforgettable film, "The Killing Fields", and the actor Haing Ngor, who played him in the film, but whose real life experience was worse. He was crucified over a slow-burning fire for three days. But only governments can initiate action before the World Court and not one agreed to.

The UN finally brokered a peace agreement in 1991. Elections were held. Hun Sen later staged a coup. Elections were held again last July. Hun Sen organised for himself a convincing win. Meanwhile Hun Sen achieved his long-time goal of defeating the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died; and at the end of last year his chief lieutenants Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea made their peace with Hun Sen. Although Mr Sen at one time seemed to consider the possibility of handing them over to an international tribunal now he seems content to let them hide away in the jungle on the Thai border as long as they are politically quiescent. But King Norodom Sihanouk, the constitutional monarch, said three weeks ago that he would not give them amnesty and that an international tribunal should have the right to try them for genocide.

It must be done, and quickly. Too much time has already passed. The planned International Criminal Court will not be able to deal with crimes committed before its creation. A third ad hoc tribunal is the only way to balance the humanitarian books of the post World War 2 era. As the Nuremberg war crimes' tribunals concluded, "crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such offenses can the provisions of international law be enforced".

Mr Hun is desperate for both recognition and aid. This must be the lever to persuade him to change his mind yet again. He now has the power he has craved all his political life. He must use it.


Copyright © 1999 By JONATHAN POWER


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