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Credit: Donovan Govan.

Justice, on our terms

The trial of Nuon Chea, chief ideologue during the infamous Khmer Rouge regime, is underway in Cambodia as local Cambodians and international observers associated with the International Criminal Court (ICC) try to make sense of the killing of approximately 1.7 million people from 1975 to 1979.  Interestingly different from other trials orchestrated by the International Criminal Court, such as Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, is the impeding notion of justice being provided under international standards, and especially under Cambodian standards.

As Chea provides explanation for the events in Cambodia following the rise of Pol Pot, the notoriously brutal leader of the Khmer Rouge, onlookers consisting of law students, locals and judges, both international and Cambodian, carefully listen to the reasons behind the destruction of millions of human lives supposedly for the cause of protecting Cambodia.  In his defense Chea provides the argument that he was merely following the orders of the regime under the fanatical belief that Cambodia must be rid of all Vietnamese influence, which in the context of the time, meant the mass killings of essentially anyone who would challenge the authority of Khmer rule. As in past atrocities, the leaders behind the Cambodian atrocities attribute blame for the events on external matters, namely the potential “influence” of Vietnamese “agents” in “destroying the race and culture of Cambodia”. The notion of external “influence” and following orders as justification for the mass killing of their own citizens sounds remarkably similar to the arguments posed by Slobodan Milosevic following his involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo, or the excuse posed by the infamous Holocaust orchestrator Adolf Eichmann, who in 1960, 15 years after the Holocaust, simply viewed his actions as following orders in the name of Nazi Germany.  What set these cases apart is the symbolic purpose of international criminal trials, whereas Milosevic only provided the International community with an explanation of his actions during his trial at The Hague; Eichmann explained his actions to his victims in Israel. The Eichmann case gave international justice with Jewish standards, exemplifying the symbolic nature of international criminal trials and not necessarily the punitive aspects, as the current trial in Cambodia Nuon Chea is providing Cambodians with a sense of closure.

by Matthieu Santerre


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