A UN-backed tribunal in Cambodia recently began criminal proceedings against three senior members of the infamous Khmer Rouge. The trial of Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary presents an invaluable opportunity to learn the lessons of history as we claim a small victory for international humanitarian law.
These three are accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, religious persecution, and others. There are parallels between the actions of the Khmer Rouge and other historic war crimes stemming from violent, radical political ideologies. Like the rest of my generation, I am not old enough to remember the Khmer Rouge, the names of its leaders or the scenes of its destruction. But I am old enough to remember the trials of Slobodan Milosevic and Ratko Mladic, the genocide in Rwanda, and Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurdish people. This awareness has shaped my worldview as I’ve grown up and taught me both the importance of international humanitarian law and its limitations, yet history has even more to teach us. Because I was taught to, I remember the Holocaust, and because I am a guilty white American, I remember the perpetual atrocities perpetrated by the United States against our native population. Now, I can remember the Khmer Rouge, and another disaster is added to the list of “never again.”
Practically, the trial is an opportunity for humanitarian law to prevail: for good to exact some justice over evil, so to speak. Such cases have historically been indispensable to establishing the role of international humanitarian law by creating a basic understanding of universal human rights and freedoms. This role will become more important as our world becomes increasingly globalized, and the Khmer Rouge trial will strengthen and reaffirm our commitment to defending humanity on a global scale. This trial, if successful, will join the short list of cases in which large-scale criminal masterminds have been held accountable for their actions. We will be able to talk about the trial of the Khmer Rouge as we talk about, say, the Nuremberg Trials, as some kind of victory over the excesses of evil.
This trial, perhaps most depressingly, is a lesson: Remembering the injustices of the past might be the best way to prevent them in the future. Our generation, the future, is at the forefront of a revolution in thought and society. As such, we must remember not only the triumphs of like-minded comrades, such as the Arab Spring, and leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., but also the abject, miserable, and disastrous failures of ideological revolutions when that ideology is harmful or usurped for political control (indeed, we are seeing the collapse-in-the-making of Egypt’s nascent revolution). As we face seemingly constant revolutions in our modern world, we must respect the delicate balance between fervent idealism and responsible governance.
We would do well to pay close attention to this trial: As we celebrate its critical importance for the strengthening of the still-imperfect international law mechanism, we must simultaneously re-commit ourselves to the mantra of “never again.”
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