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Guilty verdicts for Khmer Rouge killers – now let Cambodia’s wounds heal

Emotional moment as two survivors of Khmer Rouge death camps react to verdict. EPA/Mark Remissa

More than 40 years after the Year Zero horror of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, two of the most senior Khmer Rouge leaders have been found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Khieu Samphan, 83, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, and Nuon Chea, 88, a leading party ideologue, were prosecuted in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for crimes committed under the “Democratic Kampuchea” regime, under which 1.7m people died of starvation, disease or were executed between 1975 and 1979.

The verdicts represent a moment of historic reckoning with Cambodia’s tragic past and are a significant landmark in the work of the troubled ECCC. Victims’ groups recognised by the ECCC have met the sentences with broad approval and the verdicts will undoubtedly contribute to some sense of accountability among those Cambodians who remain keen to see former Khmer Rouge figures prosecuted.

Mini trials

Despite the conclusion of this landmark trial, it is worth offering some cautionary reflections on this milestone. The guilty verdicts offered today are the outcome of proceedings that were increasingly winnowed and hastened in order to work as a “mini” trial.

Khieu Samphan: crimes against humanity. EPA/Mark Peters

In 2013, with one eye on the ailing health of defendants, the ECCC began a process of expediting its prosecutions against former leaders by breaking proceedings into more manageable “mini” cases.

Each of these will focus on a specific event or site – and today’s guilty verdicts in case 002/01 are for crimes against humanity perpetrated during the evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975 only. They therefore reflect and acknowledge only a small part of Cambodia’s experiences of the Khmer Rouge.

Genocide charge

The pair will face the hugely significant charge of genocide in the next “mini” trial as the ECCC starts case 002/02 later this year. Yet the poor health of the defendants means that the next set of prosecutions may not be completed.

The failure to do so would mean that the longstanding and thorny question of genocide recognition in Cambodia goes unanswered. This would be a blow for many Cambodians given the historic reluctance of the international community to recognise genocide in Cambodia.

Moreover, the specific experiences and fate of some minority groups under the Khmer Rouge, such as the Muslim Chams and ethnic Vietnamese, would not be acknowledged as an important part of this tragic story. The likelihood that the ECCC will offer a partial and incomplete picture of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge seems at odds with claims that the court can act to consolidate a historical record of Cambodia’s atrocities, or “set the record straight”.

Nuon Chea: Brother Number Two. EPA/Mark Peters

There are further sobering issues to bear in mind. The first relates to the mandate and framing of the ECCC prosecutions. The ECCC can and will only prosecute “senior leaders” and most responsible persons.

The roles of large numbers of lower-level Khmer Rouge perpetrators, although often implicated during the ECCC proceedings, will go largely unexamined.

Still hurting

It is important to remind ourselves that such lower-level perpetrators still live with and among victims. Many lower-level Khmer Rouge also lost friends and relatives to the internal purges of the Democratic Kampuchea regime and during the subsequent years of protracted civil war in Cambodia.

There are outstanding questions concerning reconciliation within Cambodian communities and we still need to better understand exactly how former perpetrators of atrocity have come to live in relative harmony in Cambodian society today. These are questions that the ECCC cannot attend to.

A final cautionary point concerns the relative indifference and apathy of many Cambodians toward the ECCC. Longstanding mistrust toward Cambodia’s judicial institutions, frustrations about the costs and delays with the court process, and the failure of the ECCC to properly account for the roles of various international actors in Cambodia’s history of political violence has led to many Cambodians losing interest in the ECCC.

Many in Cambodia’s human rights circles are also reluctant to recognise the legitimacy of a basic desire in many sections of Cambodian society to leave the past where it is.

Thinking about the rulings in the wider context of prosecutions for the gravest international crimes, it was inconceivable that there could have been anything other than guilty verdicts. It is worth reminding ourselves that all international criminal proceedings will always be symbolic and incomplete. For all its limitations – limitations that we should be at pains to remind ourselves of – the ECCC has offered verdicts today that will begin to help a nation draw a line under a terrible period in its history.

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