In a recent column, British columnist Jonathan Power commented on the ongoing war crimes trials in Cambodia.
Jonathan Power is British by birth, but his outlook is international. He’s a very liberal commentator on international affairs who rarely confines himself to the politics of his home country. His scrutiny is wide-ranging and his grasp of international affairs is enormous, and his sense of justice always praiseworthy. I have never known him to be unfair to anyone due to personal prejudices, from which no one is immune.
He says that the trials are too slow and further delay could be dangerous. Conducted jointly by the United Nations and Cambodian government, there are just five defendants but the process has taken seven years, and may not finish even within a year. So far, only one has been convicted. The only woman accused was released on health grounds. While the remaining defendants have health facilities and TV, their French lawyers want them out of jail and under house arrest.
As Jonathan Power reminds us, when World War II ended and the problem of what to do with captured Nazi leaders came up, one of the three leaders of the victorious Allied countries wanted them summarily shot. One could be excused for thinking that this was Joseph Stalin. In fact, it was Winston Churchill, while Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt persuaded him that they should be put on trial. It was the first war crimes trial in history and took just 13 months to finish despite the enormity of the crimes involved.
Jonathan Power says that the Cambodian genocide under Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot is almost on the scale of the Nazi war crimes in their concentration camps and occupied countries. Anyone who wishes to get an idea of what life under Pol Pot was like should see the 1984 film, The Killing Fields directed by Roland Joffe.
The number of those murdered has never been accurately established, but could be as high as two million. If this trial has a successful outcome, it will send a strong signal to maniacal future leaders – be they revolutionaries, military juntas, or civilian despots – that a day of reckoning will come sooner or later if they commit mass murder.
As Jonathan Power writes: “Western nations, following in the footsteps of the United States, voted to keep the Khmer Rouge flag flying outside the UN where the flags of every nation flutter in the river breeze and to allow them to sit inside the UN assembly as Cambodia’s legitimate representative.
Again I asked the two senior Western diplomats (present at the trial) to explain how this could happen. One said they had been too young to remember but added that on asking an older ex-ambassador he was told at that time the horrors were not well documented. Another one simply floundered; looking for an answer that he knew couldn’t stand up. In hindsight, even though in fact couldn’t stand up at the time. When I said that to support a regime which committed the second worst genocide of the 20th century was totally and irredeemably immoral, I could have cut the atmosphere in both embassies with a knife.”