Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dignifying the many victims of Pol Pot

The Age - August 11, 2014

It is difficult to comprehend the appalling devastation that was wrought onCambodia by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. From April 1975, when Pol Pot’s forces seized control of Phnom Penh and banished the entire population to rural regions, until January 1979, when Vietnamese forces invaded, at least 1.7 million people were murdered or died of starvation. Pol Pot’s systematic genocide of his fellow countrymen, his program of extreme socialism that erased the apparatus of the state and destroyedCambodia’s social structure and its history, stands as one of the most evil episodes of mankind.

Last week, there was some small degree of justice meted out by the Cambodian tribunal that for several years has been hearing trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders. In a decision running to more than 600 pages, five judges of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia sentenced Nuon Chea, the 88-year- old former deputy secretary and chief policymaker of the Khmer Rouge, and Khieu Samphan, 83, the regime’s former head of state, to life in prison. The tribunal found the pair responsible for murder, political persecution and inhumane acts, including forced transfers and disappearances, and that their crimes were perpetrated ‘‘with cold disregard for human life’’.

Their victims numbered up to 2.43 million, a figure the judges said was ‘‘among the highest’’ of any cases that have been decided involving crimes against international law. Nuon’s involvement was said to be ‘‘pivotal, extensive and significant’’, while Khieu had ‘‘disseminated, endorsed and defended the [Khmer Rouge’s] common purpose and policies, providing encouragement, support and his trusted and respected character which allowed the crimes to more readily be committed’’.

In a breathtakingly shallow and self-serving apology, Nuon claimed it was all done for a ‘‘good purpose’’. He blamed the crimes on ‘‘traitors’’. The judges, appropriately, said he had failed to assume any moral responsibility. Khieu’s extraordinary defence was that he was not aware of what was happening during the regime he governed from 1976 to 1979.

For Cambodians, there may be a degree of closure through this case, but it does not mark an end or a victory. It cannot repair or restore. It will not bring back what has gone. The punishment Nuon and Khieu will receive cannot possibly be weighed against the damage done.

As for civil damages, the ECCC does not have power to order reparations but it can give its imprimatur to projects that might help rehabilitate the nation and restore dignity to victims of the Khmer Rouge. To that end, there will be a national day of remembrance in Cambodia, public memorials will be built and there are some initiatives towards raising public awareness.

One project, which is intended to help restore victims’ dignity and give them a stronger voice in Cambodia’s efforts to rebuild, involves recording victims’ testimonies. The project will also help document the many human rights violations of the Khmer Rouge. It has been jointly funded to about $US200,000 by Australia, Germany and a Swiss institute, but another $US1 million is needed to extend the work beyond Phnom Penh.

Australia has played an important role in rebuilding Cambodia, and in seeking to foster public understanding of human rights and respect for the rule of law. It has contributed $23 million to the ECCC’s work, and Melbourne-based QC Rowan Downing has been a judge of the ECCC’s pre-trial division since 2006.

There is, however, a less comfortable link. The ECCC heard that military trucks the Australian government had donated to Cambodia in the early 1970s were used by the Khmer Rouge to transport hundreds of people to mass executions in April 1975. With this in mind, we urge the government to dig deeper to ensure Australia generously and fully sponsors the victims testimony project.

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