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Lessons from Cambodia

Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. Source: Joel Burslem, Flickr Creative Commons

Attention over the past few weeks has centered on ongoing conflicts, including ISIS’s activity in Iraq and the situation in Gaza. In another corner of the globe, however, the international community has taken action to address war crimes from long ago. On August 7th, Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal found two former Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of crimes against humanity. The Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia from 17 April 1975 to 7 January 1979, during which the regime killed at least 1.7 million people. The tribunal’s verdict is widely perceived as too little, too late, but, nonetheless, it may prove instructive to the international community.

The two men convicted are Nuon Chea, 88, and Khieu Samphan, 83. They are the two most senior members of the Khmer Rouge who are still alive. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, died in Cambodia in 1998.

During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, roughly a quarter of the Cambodian population perished due to forced labor, starvation, and execution. Survivors, such as SJAC board member Youk Chhang, recall torture, imprisonment, and a struggle to live: “my mother lost all three of her brothers, one sister, one daughter and many grandchildren under the regime. Nearly 60 of our family members are still missing today.”

Many survivors welcome the verdict for its symbolism. “We knew that the court would not resolve everything,” Chhang tells the New York Times, “but it was important to have the proceedings.” The verdict—albeit 35 years after the crimes—demonstrates that the international community does not forget atrocities. This is a small step towards accountability.

Nonetheless, the verdict is limited. It cannot heal the lingering scars of the Cambodian people. The perpetrators have been sentenced to life but, at 88 and 83, life imprisonment means something much different than it would have 35 years ago, when Chea and Samphan were younger. Given the court’s tardiness, many other leaders have already died, escaping prosecution. Equally importantly, this belated accountability process denies now-deceased victims the opportunity to see their tormentors brought to justice.

Looking forward, Chhang argues, the international community must focus on prevention. “Saving millions of lives today speaks far greater for our civilization than issuing verdicts tomorrow.”

How does this apply to Syria today? While prevention is a logical first step, Syrians and the international community must also consider ways to address the atrocities of the past few years. Special tribunals—as enacted in Cambodia—represent one possible avenue. However, such tribunals prove quite costly. The Rwanda tribunal, for example, cost around $250 million to try fewer than 50 individuals. The Cambodia tribunal itself has spent over $200 million since 2006 and convicted only three individuals. Syrians and the international community must consider tribunals’ long timelines and high price tags, and determine whether such funds might be better spent on other accountability initiatives, such as reparations programs.

Special tribunals offer one path to implementing international law, but other alternatives can be considered, such as International Criminal Court investigations or the creation of domestic Syrian accountability systems.

Cambodia has taught us that accountability is attainable, but often belated. To best achieve justice and deter future crimes, Syrians and the international community must discuss potential avenues for accountability so that they can be employed as soon as possible and with the best possible impacts on Syria’s future.