Saturday, September 18, 2010

When does a massacre become a genocide?

September 17, 2010

Cambodia’s United Nations-backed war-crimes court formally indicted four former Khmer Rouge leaders on September 16th. Their trial, set to begin next year, will be the second of its kind. In July Comrade Duch, the commandant of an infamous prison, was handed a 35-year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity, reduced to 19 years against time served and a period of illegal detention. Next in the dock are the Khmers Rouges’ chief ideologue, Nuon Chea, their former head of state, Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, both ministers in their government. The four stand charged, like Duch, with war crimes and crimes against humanity—and also with genocide. The court’s new charge should prove most contentious yet.

The term genocide has been used freely by Cambodians and foreign observers alike in reference to the atrocities committed during the Khmers Rouges’ ultra-Maoist revolution. In the mid- to late 1970s it cost the lives of nearly one in four Cambodians; all told, at least 1.7m people died. But the tribunal, started in 2007, only introduced this monumental charge at the end of last year. Investigating judges and prosecutors proposed adding it on the basis of their research into the defendants’ alleged role in the slaughter of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims.

In 1999, UN experts concluded that there was strong evidence pointing to genocide by the Khmer Rouge. Ben Kiernan, a scholar of the Khmer Rouge and founder of Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Project, for one, is adamant that the mass killing in Cambodia constitutes a genocide. In his research Mr Kiernan cites the disproportionate death toll inflicted on those two non-Khmer ethnic groups. He argues further that the regime called officially for the elimination of both minorities.