As has been widely reported, a Cambodian court recently found the two most senior surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced them to life in prison. The Khmer Rouge brutalized Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and is thought to be responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people.
The Khmer Rouge was an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army. It instituted many draconian reforms, including a drive toward complete self-sufficiency. This in turn led to famine and needless deaths due to the nation’s inability to produce medicines. As above, however, the regime’s most glaring atrocity was the systematic genocide of nearly one quarter of the Cambodian population.
The conviction of two senior Khmer Rouge leaders 35 years after their political fall rings as a hollow victory for many onlookers. While old age in no way absolves the individuals of their crimes, the judgments against Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83, are so lacking in celerity as to seem almost moot.
New York Times reporters in Phnom Penh to cover the verdict interviewed younger Cambodians working at a garment factory near the courthouse.
Nuon Chantha, 24, told reporters she knew very little about the proceedings. “I’ve heard from old people that the Khmer Rouge was really bad and they killed many people,” she said. “I don’t have much time to pay attention to the hearing,” she said. “I spend most of my day working.”
Her remarks were typical of those interviewed. Among the younger generation there appears to be a pragmatic detachment from their nation’s most dark days. Had these verdicts come down 20 or maybe even 30 years ago, the response would have likely been different.
Apart from the snail’s pace of justice, there is another disquieting element to these proceedings. These convictions were the first to be handed down against the Khmer Rouge leadership, although a lower-ranking official, who ran a notorious prison for the regime in Phnom Penh, was convicted in 2010.
There’s a very close analogue to the Cambodian situation when one considers the prosecution of erstwhile Nazis. In 2013, National Geographic interviewed Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi hunter for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global Jewish human rights organization about the ongoing search for former Nazis.
Even though most of the suspects are now in their 80s or 90s, age is no reason to stop seeking justice, said Zuroff: “Don’t look at these people and say they look frail and weak. Think of someone who at the height of his powers devoted his energies to murdering men, women, and children.”
Zuroff went on to say: “The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the killers. Old age should not provide protection. The fact that they have reached an elderly age does not turn them into righteous gentiles.”
Holocaust historian and Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt arrives at a similar conclusion: “Just because they did this a long time ago doesn’t mean they should be exonerated. If someone raped children decades ago and we found that person now in his 80s or 90s, you would still say they should be tried. The victims deserve to have the perpetrators brought to justice. And society needs to know that you don’t get a free pass.”
While we certainly agree with Zuroff and Lipstadt, we can’t help but note that the Cambodian genocide required the efforts of more than three people. That international courts have only recently brought three old men to some form of justice only serves to heighten the larger injustice.