Permalink to The Khmer Rouge Trial: More Important than Dominique Strauss-Kahn

The Khmer Rouge Trial: More Important than Dominique Strauss-Kahn

 

Correction: I was mistaken, Seth Mydans at the New York Times has been reporting on this. I didn’t notice it. I apologize.

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As grotesquely fascinating as the DSK story is–and yes, that is an important story, and yes, journalists are right to cover it–it is utterly bizarre that you can read major American newspaper after major American newspaper this week and come away without a hint that this is happening: 

Cambodia’s war crimes tribunal today handed down its first guilty verdict against a senior Khmer Rouge figure, Tuol Sleng prison director Duch, for crimes committed under the regime more than 30 years ago. …

Only 14 people are known to have survived Tuol Sleng, which under Duch’s meticulous and rigid hand evolved into an efficient killing machine that came to symbolise the worst excesses of increasingly paranoid Khmer Rouge leaders. 

Entire families were imprisoned for the alleged crimes of a single member, and on a single day in 1977 alone, Duch ordered the executions of 160 children. 

The verdict marks the first time that a Khmer Rouge official has been convicted by an internationally recognised court for crimes committed during the 1975-79 communist regime, which dismantled modern Cambodian society as it sought to build a classless agrarian utopia. Education, religion and currency were abolished, and the country’s entire population was put to work in vast collective farms. 

This radical social-engineering experiment, however, quickly became one of the 20th century’s worst tragedies, with an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians dying of disease, exhaustion from overwork, torture or execution. 

During a six-month trial last year–the tribunal’s first–prosecutors painted Duch, a 67 year-old former math teacher, as a driving force behind the regime’s execution campaign, and argued that he guided crimes committed at Tuol Sleng.

Two points about this: First, the UN seems to have done a good job with the first trial. Justice has been far too slow, but if you look through the legal documents, you do see a serious attempt to return legally sound verdicts that will be accepted as legitimate.

However, the so-callled third and most important case appears to be in disarray:

“There are only two possible answers for all the chaos and shenanigans. Either the co-investigating judges are not professionally able, or they’re under political pressure. Either way we need a proper investigation,” said Ou Virak, the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

The head of a victims’ association, Theary Seng, called on Mr Blunk to resign, along with the UN-appointed administrator of the tribunal.

“We had expected and trusted the UN personnel in the court to raise the quality of justice to international standards. But what’s happening is deceit–it’s deceit with UN complicity, with UN insignia on it,” she told the BBC.

I can’t evaluate these claims properly from Istanbul, but I think it’s fair to say that bringing the leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice is massively important, no? And that the trial must not be allowed to degenerate into a political joke? 

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  1. Profile photo of Flagg Taylor Inactive

     Yes, I very much agree this is massively important.  It will take a long time to redress the imbalance in the way that Nazism and Communism are treated and understood.  But events like this ought to help…I hope.

    • #1
    • July 1, 2011 at 8:47 am
  2. Profile photo of raycon and lindacon Member

    In 1987 I entered Cambodia, as one of the first Americans to do so, with a documentary team, when World Vision re-opened a pediatric hospital which originally opened just 6 weeks before the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia.  We had dinner with the only three living staff members of the hospital which employed seventy-five when it was overtaken by the Khmer Rouge.

    I went to Toul Sleng, which was originally a high school, with a former student at that school who escaped before Pol Pot took over.  The classrooms were converted to brick walled cells that were 5ft by 3ft, with almost no ventilation.  The temperature in there was in excess of 115 degrees with no air movement.  The photo above doesn’t do justice to the real size of the skull hill, nor encompass the horror that surrounds it. 

    I first watched the movie, The Killing Fields, later that same day, at the World Vision offices.  I cannot express the depth of emotion, sadness and anger that we all felt when it ended.  Three weeks later I spent some time with Haing Ngor, who actually lived that story, and although not an actor, portrayed Dith Pran.

    • #2
    • July 1, 2011 at 8:50 am
  3. Profile photo of Lidens Cheng Member

    As a Cambodian, I’m going to say it’s about time. Over the decades, these trials have become a joke in Cambodia. I suppose it’s not surprising considering it’s the UN. At the same time, I think the UN feels obligated to handle these cases as best as possible (a rarity for them) due to their tremendous failure regarding Cambodia and considering how long it has taken the tribunal to get to the cases. That being said, I’m sure there’s still a considerable amount of corruption left in the UN to play itself out.

    • #3
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:02 am
  4. Profile photo of Ross C Member

    This is exactly the kind of post I know nothing about, but…..

    I think that delays of this magnitude in themselves show that this path is the wrong one.  I can only surmise that these tribunals are so mired in political intrigue that they are nearly worthless (to those being prosecuted) and likely dangerous (to those who might be).  In this example, this is a trial regarding a fairly well accepted set of facts about what happened with almost universal acceptance that what happened was not just wrong but an abomination. 

    If it takes 30 years to get this one done, what about trials where the facts are substantially in dispute or where political views about right and wrong are not as clear.  AND this is not free, copious resources have been consumed to get to this point.  You would have to argue that the deterrent effect is worth it, but that is unclear to me.

    • #4
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:07 am
  5. Profile photo of Ross C Member

     BTW regarding the picture, doesn’t the skull the man is dusting look improbably large compared to the his own head and the rest of the skulls?

    Is this a photoshop disaster?

    • #5
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:09 am
  6. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    Ross Conatser: This is exactly the kind of post I know nothing about, but…..

    I think that delays of this magnitude in themselves show that this path is the wrong one. 

    The honest answer is that I’m not sure. I can’t accept the idea of no justice at all for the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. But the points you raise are obvious.

    What do you suggest as the alternative? 

    • #6
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:13 am
  7. Profile photo of raycon and lindacon Member

    There was a time, think 1945, that those who performed such atrocities were tried and hanged within weeks.  Are we at a place where we have confused civilized jurisprudence with corrupted jurisprudence?  Or would anybody argue that we hanged innocent Nazis?

    • #7
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:32 am
  8. Profile photo of Jan-Michael Rives Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

     I can’t accept the idea of no justice at all for the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. 

    I’m sorry to have to tell you, but plenty of those guys died years ago, peacefully in their sleep, at a ripe old age. Justice is an exclusively American phenomenon these days.

    • #8
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:32 am
  9. Profile photo of Harry Huntington Inactive

    How quickly folks forget that back in the day the New York Times, Sydney Schanberg, William Shawcross and others laid blame for the state of Cambodian politics at the feet of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissenger.  At the time, all the Khmer Rouge were doing was a little bit of domestic housekeeping required to put things in order after United States intervention muddied them up.  It was only after Vietnam invaded Cambodia and worked to install a different government that folks around the world began to believe that the Khmer Rouge regime was illegitimate.

    All that said, given that the Khmer Rouge did all these bad things while it was the sitting government, I would expect the same folks who are eager to see Khmer Rouge officials prosecuted today for zealous enforcement of their laws will insist that folks prosecute anyone who may still remain from the Franco regime in Spain, the Pinochet regime in Chile, the Generals in Argentina, the Bush regime of the Patriot Act days, the Karzai regime, and the Obama regime that believes in assassination of foreign enemies.  After all,  we have finally gotten around to prosecuting Whitey Bulger for assassinating his enemies haven’t we?

    • #9
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:38 am
  10. Profile photo of Jan-Michael Rives Inactive

    By the way, Claire, between this post and the one you did earlier on Cuba, I just want you to know that I’m really glad you’re an editor here. Most people would be happy to talk about DSK all day.

    • #10
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:39 am
  11. Profile photo of Southern Pessimist Member

     I visited Toul Sleng in 2006 and it was much as described by Raycon. The display of skulls is from a memorial park of the killing fields now owned and operated by a South Korean company. All through the fields there are tiny fragments of cloth supposedly rising up from the ground from unmarked graves but obviously due to the lack of rot were recently planted for effect. It is a sad reflection on society that the fields are now a cheap tourist attraction.

    • #11
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:40 am
  12. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    raycon: There was a time, think 1945, that those who performed such atrocities were tried and hanged within weeks.  Are we at a place where we have confused civilized jurisprudence with corrupted jurisprudence?  Or would anybody argue that we hanged innocent Nazis? · Jul 1 at 9:32am

    Oh, Raycon …

    I’m seeing, before my own eyes, what happens when a country wants vengeance on the past so badly that they’ll abandon all appeal to proper juridical standards to have it. I saw it in a courtroom last week and I’ll never forget it. 

    I really do not know the answer to these questions.

    Don’t forget that the first part of this trial appears to have been a success–far too late, but not mired in controversy, at least. It’s the third part that’s in question. The second part is not, as far as I know, problematic. 

    But of course the reporting on this is limited, and it’s always hard to understand just what’s going on from brief, sketchy media reports–especially since few seem to be covering this.

    These questions are for obvious reasons troubling me deeply these days.

    • #12
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:47 am
  13. Profile photo of Jan-Michael Rives Inactive
    Harry Huntington: 

    All that said, given that the Khmer Rouge did all these bad things while it was the sitting government, I would expect the same folks who are eager to see Khmer Rouge officials prosecuted today for zealous enforcement of their laws will insist that folks prosecute anyone who may still remain from the Franco regime in Spain, the Pinochet regime in Chile, the Generals in Argentina, the Bush regime of the Patriot Act days, the Karzai regime, and the Obama regime that believes in assassination of foreign enemies.

    If your question is whether the rule of law should apply to everyone, the answer is yes. If your claim is that the crimes of the people in that list in any way compare to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, you’re nuts.

    • #13
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:47 am
  14. Profile photo of flownover Inactive

    And this will be followed by a trial for the Hutu of course . Right ?

    Right ?

    • #14
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:50 am
  15. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    Jan-Michael Rives: By the way, Claire, between this post and the one you did earlier on Cuba, I just want you to know that I’m really glad you’re an editor here. Most people would be happy to talk about DSK all day. · Jul 1 at 9:39am

    Thanks, JMR. The DSK story isn’t trivial, though–among other reasons, precisely because of what you said: “Justice is an exclusively American phenomenon these days.” That case raises some deep questions about justice in America. An injustice has obviously been done to one of those parties. I have no idea which one. The world will be looking at that case and trying to understand through it how the American legal system works. I hope this doesn’t prove a massive embarrassment to it. 

    • #15
    • July 1, 2011 at 9:58 am
  16. Profile photo of Harry Huntington Inactive
    Jan-Michael Rives

    If your question is whether the rule of law should apply to everyone, the answer is yes. If your claim is that the crimes of the people in that list in any way compare to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, you’re nuts. · Jul 1 at 9:47am

    My point is that there is no “rule of law.”  We impose victor’s justice selectively.  In 1975 the New York Times saw nothing wrong with the Khmer Rouge.  Only after that regime was displaced by the favored Vietnamese invaders did the mainstream came around to thinking that something bad happened in Cambodia.

    The question is whether a sitting government may impose laws and enforce those laws; or is there some limit to what a sitting government may do?

    When we condemn the Khmer Rouge we cannot forget that they were the lawful sitting government. They obeyed their own domestic laws.

    It is the height of arrogance to look backwards at a former government and impose criminal penalties for that government’s then-lawful actions, no matter how repulsive those actions may be. Indeed, backwards looking prosecution of government actions turns the rule of law on its head.

    • #16
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:02 am
  17. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    flownover: And this will be followed by a trial for the Hutu of course . Right ?

    Right ? · Jul 1 at 9:50am

    Yes. 

    • #17
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:04 am
  18. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    Harry Huntington My point is that there is no “rule of law.” 

    I suspect only someone who has never witnessed the absence of rule of law can say this and mean it. 

    • #18
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:06 am
  19. Profile photo of Francis Rushford Inactive

    The MSM will give this no coverage because it goes against the orthodoxy that the communists winning in Vietnam and Cambodia was a good thing.  Joan Baez was ostracized in the 1970s by leftists for speaking out against the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge Communists.

    The Lives of Others is one of the few movies made about life behind the Iron Curtain and the Wall has been down for 22 years. Too many people in the MSM and the Intelligenstia had been admires of Lenin, Stalin, Mao and the Soviets.  Fascism and Marxism/Leninism were all collective philosophies that took power.  The Socialism in one country of Stalin was really incorporating    Mussolini’sFascism.  They were essentially the same – quick industrialization of backward countries. 

    The Stalinist quickly recognized that Fascism was a problem as a competitive theology and ideology.  Mussolini and many of the Fascists were dedicated Marxists prior to WWI.  The Marxists Theorists under Stalin had to attack Fascism as late stage capitalism and categorize it as a “Rightist Movement.”  Academia and the Intelligentsia in the West quickly adopted that definition, despite the collective nature of both, without question.

    “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.”

    • #19
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:07 am
  20. Profile photo of Capt. Aubrey Member

    If you want to help redress these unredressable wrongs, a few years ago I got a hair cut from a remarkable woman who is attempting to give back the slice of the American Dream that she and her husband achieved. http://www.onhundredpoundsofhope.com She cuts hair well but her life’s mission is more like Solzhenitsyns than anyone else I’ve ever met.

    • #20
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:08 am
  21. Profile photo of Jan-Michael Rives Inactive
    Harry Huntington

    The question is whether a sitting government may impose laws and enforce those laws; or is there some limit to what a sitting government may do?

    When we condemn the Khmer Rouge we cannot forget that they were the lawful sitting government. They obeyed their own domestic laws.

    More Locke, less Hobbes.

    • #21
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:16 am
  22. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    Harry Huntington

    When we condemn the Khmer Rouge we cannot forget that they were the lawful sitting government. They obeyed their own domestic laws.

    No. They did not. I don’t think you’re familiar with this history. The legal case is rooted in the argument that they were in violation of Cambodian penal law and international conventions recognized by Cambodia during the period from 17 April 1975 to 6 January 1979. 

    If you’re concerned to understand the legal basis of this case, this is a good place to start.

    • #22
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:17 am
  23. Profile photo of Harry Huntington Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    Harry Huntington My point is that there is no “rule of law.” 
    I suspect only someone who has never witnessed the absence of rule of law can say this and mean it.  · Jul 1 at 10:06am

    I come from Chicago.  Take that as you will.

    • #23
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:18 am
  24. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    Francis Rushford: The MSM will give this no coverage because it goes against the orthodoxy that the communists winning in Vietnam and Cambodia was a good thing. 

    I don’t think it’s ideological–or it might be, in some cases, but I think there’s a widespread if vague understanding now that this was one of the most appalling crimes of the 20th century. I think it’s something in its own way more sinister than an ideological bias–it’s indifference and preoccupation with other things; it’s slashed budgets for foreign news coverage; it’s deep cynicism (which you can see reflected even in this thread) about the idea that there is, objectively, such a thing as justice. 

    • #24
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:25 am
  25. Profile photo of Roberto Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. I can’t evaluate these claims properly from Istanbul, but I think it’s fair to say that bringing the leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice is massively important, no? And that the trial must not be allowed to degenerate into a political joke?  ·

    I am sorry but that is exactly what these “trials” are, farce. As Jan-Michael Rives correctly notes most of the monsters responsible died peacefully long ago. For those still living many are in the current government including Prime Minister Hun Sen himself. To describe these trials as some form of justice for the atrocities of the Khmer Rogue is an insult to the dead. Any opportunity for justice has long since passed, these trials are simply vaudeville for the benefit of various Western audiences to allow them to pretend they are doing something about old horrors. 

    • #25
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:32 am
  26. Profile photo of Lidens Cheng Member
    Roberto

    I am sorry but that is exactly what these “trials” are, farce. As Jan-Michael Rives correctly notes most of the monsters responsible died peacefully long ago. For those still living many are in the current government including Prime Minister Hun Sen himself. To describe these trials as some form of justice for the atrocities of the Khmer Rogue is an insult to the dead. Any opportunity for justice has long since passed, these trials are simply vaudeville for the benefit of various Western audiences to allow them to pretend they are doing something about old horrors.  · Jul 1 at 10:32am

    Sure it’s hard to take these trials too seriously since one of people responsible is the former “glorious” king himself. BUT it’s more than Western guilt. On a pretty serious level, Cambodians are glad that the international community hasn’t forgotten about the genocide and that something is happening even if it’s been this long.

    • #26
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:52 am
  27. Profile photo of Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author
    Roberto To describe these trials as some form of justice for the atrocities of the Khmer Rogue is an insult to the dead. Any opportunity for justice has long since passed, these trials are simply vaudeville for the benefit of various Western audiences to allow them to pretend they are doing something about old horrors.  · Jul 1 at 10:32am

    I think this is too cynical. There’s a large element of that, obviously, but I don’t think you can dismiss it when someone says this:

    Chum Mei, an 80-year-old survivor of Tuol Sleng, said he had been waiting a long time for Monday’s hearing. “I wanted to see the judges and prosecutors, and how they charge the four top Khmer Rouge leaders,” he said. “I will be happier today than other days.”

    • #27
    • July 1, 2011 at 10:57 am
  28. Profile photo of Ross C Member
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    What do you suggest as the alternative?  · Jul 1 at 9:13am

    The options are not perfect but…

    They can be tried in country (show trial anyone?), perhaps after a decent interval to allow things to cool down a bit.

    OR

    They can go to some third party judicial body.  This is the route they took (with the UN in this case) presumably to take advantage of existing infrastructure which they probably thought would be the most expediant way (way back when and much to their chagrin).  They could have asked another country to try the case as well, I think it would have ended as well or better.

    OR

    They could have set up an independent (i.e. private) court, preferably out of country to hear the case.  I think this method would have ultimately proved as fair or more so than the UN and would have had the added benefit of being done before everyone was dead.

    These may be obvious as well, perhaps you can be the judge of that one.

    • #28
    • July 1, 2011 at 11:27 am
  29. Profile photo of Flagg Taylor Inactive
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    Roberto To describe these trials as some form of justice for the atrocities of the Khmer Rogue is an insult to the dead. Any opportunity for justice has long since passed, these trials are simply vaudeville for the benefit of various Western audiences to allow them to pretend they are doing something about old horrors.  · Jul 1 at 10:32am

    I think this is too cynical. There’s a large element of that, obviously, but I don’t think you can dismiss it when someone says this:

    Chum Mei, an 80-year-old survivor of Tuol Sleng, said he had been waiting a long time for Monday’s hearing. “I wanted to see the judges and prosecutors, and how they charge the four top Khmer Rouge leaders,” he said. “I will be happier today than other days.”

    Jul 1 at 10:57am

    I would add that it is never too late because the younger generation is often simply unaware of or indifferent to the recent past.  So these trials may make an impression on them, apart from their obvious value with respect to the likes Chum Mei.

    • #29
    • July 1, 2011 at 11:33 am
  30. Profile photo of Foxman Inactive
    Harry Huntington: .

     the Bush regime of the Patriot Act days, the Karzai regime,  · Jul 1 at 9:38am

    The Democrats don’t like to talk about it, but the Patriot Act is still being used.

    • #30
    • July 1, 2011 at 11:41 am
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