A new trial began this Friday for the two highest-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. This is the second in a series of trials—the first of which began in 2007—aimed at convicting both men of a range of war crimes and crimes against humanity for their part in the Cambodian Genocide. The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the judicial body presiding over the case, is a coalition of the United Nations and the Royal Government of Cambodia. Although the tribunal was meant to deliver justice to the numerous victims of Pol Pot’s despotism in the late 1970s, many of the cases are occurring so long after the crimes themselves that even the harshest rulings seem somewhat inconsequential.
Of the incredible violence that pervaded the Cold War era, the events of the Cambodian Genocide rank among the most horrific. In little over four years, Pol Pot and his adherents in the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of 1.7 to 3 million people in the pursuit of an agrarian socialist utopia. People living in the capital city of Phnom Penh along with many others were forcibly sent to the countryside to endure state-mandated labor.
The most brutal expression of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, however, can be seen in the tens of thousands of execution and burial sites throughout Cambodia. Dubbed the Killing Fields, these areas have been found to contain the remains of nearly 1.4 million individuals murdered during the Khmer Rogue’s regime, many of whom were political elites, sympathizers of the previous government, or members of Cambodia’s many different minority groups. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham, and others were killed by the regime in its search to “purify the masses of the people.”
Although the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia deposed the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the effects of the regime’s violence are still being dealt with today. Nuon Chea, Pol-Pot’s successor, and Khieu Samphan, the Khmer Rouge’s former head of state, are being charged with the actions of the Khmer Rouge in its entirety, as should be expected of the regime’s former leaders. These charges, however, come nearly 40 years after the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror, and the men accused are both over 80 years old.
While it remains necessary to hold these men and the others who orchestrated this violence accountable for their actions, the massive gap in time between the end of the regime and the formation of the tribunal limits the court’s ability to enact effective and meaningful sentences. The tribunal, after all, can only ask for so much restitution from the accused to repay those affected by the Khmer Rouge after so many decades. As a nation, Cambodia is still recovering from the influence of the regime, and the actions of the tribunal may help guide this healing process. However, after so much time, the tribunal’s role has become less about serving justice and more about providing Cambodia’s collective conscience with a sense of catharsis.