Like Cambodia, Syria Isn’t a Mistake

Friday, 23 November, 2018 - 06:15

Like Cambodia, Syria Isn’t a Mistake

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Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987
Better late than never! This is what comes to mind when one reads the latest news from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, where two leaders of the Khmer Rouge have been tried and found guilty of genocide for the first time. The charges date back to the 1970s and the two leaders involved Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan are 92 and 87 years old.

For more than a decade they had tried to claim that the crimes attributed to them were either “part of history” or covered by the so-called principle of “sovereign immunity” that exempts heads of state from prosecution, Khieu Samphan was head of state and Nuon Chea acted as deputy to the party’s top leader Pol Pot.

Their conviction rejects both claims. The universally accepted principle now is that such crimes as genocide are not covered by the passage of time and that “sovereign immunity” cannot be applied to genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Phnom Penh trial also firmly establishes the definition of genocide by the United Nations as binding in all such cases.

The two sentences close another debate focused on whether or not what Khmer Rouge did could be regarded as genocide or just ethnic cleansing. In a sense the two men were guilty of ethnic cleansing because they presided over the massacre of Muslim Cambodians and ethnic Vietnamese living in that country. More than a third of Cambodian Muslims were killed and the rest deported. The ethnic Vietnamese community lost 20,000 men, women and children and the remaining 250,000 forced back into Vietnam.

One argument used by the two Khmer Rouge leaders was that their regime’s violence was directed as “class enemies” rather than specific ethnic communities. Between 1975 and 1979 when their regime was overthrown by the invading Vietnamese army, the Khmers killed more than two million people, most of them root-and-branch Cambodians. The Khmer wished to recreate the semi-mythical “self-sufficient” rural Cambodian community that they believed had been sullied, if not actually destroyed, by urbanization and Western influence brought in by French colonialists.

The verdicts came despite strenuous efforts by the Cambodian government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a repentant former member of the Khmer Rouge, to slow down the wheels of justice and muddy the waters with pseudo-judicial arguments designed to withhold relevant evidence and testimonies.

Since, having been found guilty of other crimes, the two Khmer leaders are already in prison the latest verdict may not appear significant. But it is for at least two reasons.

The first is that it closes the debate on whether what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s was or was not a genocide.

You may not recall the sad fact that when the Khmers were engaged in their genocide some leftist and bleeding heart liberal intellectuals in the West were trying to justify their crimes in the name of de-colonization or even praising their mad project for a return to “rural simplicity” and rejection of “the capitalist industrial society.” Return-ticket revolutionaries from Europe traveled to Cambodia to admire what they saw as an attempt by the Third World to develop an alternative to the Western “Imperialist” model. For some Western intellectuals the fact that the Khmer were anti-American and pro-Soviet was enough to justify all their crimes.

The second reason why the Phnom Penh verdict is important is that it reminds the international community that genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity have continued in several parts of the world. The genocide of the Hutus in Rwanda, and the ethnic cleansing crimes committed by all sides in former Yugoslavia, remain as painful reminders of the United Nations failure to act in time.

Right now the most important case of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity concerns Syria where Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Iranian and Russian backers are trying hard to obstruct the course of justice. Russia has threatened to use its veto to prevent the International Criminal Court from obtaining the approval of the United Nations Security Council for launching a formal procedure for the prosecution of Assad and his close associates.

Nevertheless, three parallel efforts are continuing to prepare the ground for the time when starting a formal prosecution becomes possible. One effort concerns the United Nations which, despite many ups and downs, has continued to at least monitor the situation in the war-torn country. Another effort is made by a number of private organizations and human rights groups determined to shed as much light as possible on the dark side of Russian and Iranian involvement in the Syrian conflict. A third effort belongs to European countries that seem to have created the best structure for an eventual prosecution of Assad and his allies.

The European effort has led to amassing more than two million documents, including some incriminating ones signed by Assad himself, providing a graphic narrative of the Syrian tragedy. The mass of evidence gathered, and kept in an un-named European capital, is described as “many times larger “than what the Allies were able to amass during the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders after the Second World War. A team of 22 international lawyers are working on the project with the help of scores of Syrian human rights activists and former regime officials.

The Western initiative was launched in 2012 by the US State Department with a budget of just over $1.2 million. In 2013, however, for reasons still unknown President Barack Obama decided to scrap the project and stopped its budget. After a brief hiatus the project was taken up by Europe with special financial support from Holland and Germany.

One thing is certain: the world cannot treat the Syrian tragedy with a blasé grin-and-bear it attitude. Almost half a million people, most of them civilians, have been killed and more than 10 million others forced to become refugees or internally displaced. The barbarity manifested by the regime in treating its captured opponents surpasses what the Soviet and Nazi repressive machines did in their time.

In 1979, in his book “The Sideshow”, British writer William Shawcross said: “Cambodia was not a mistake, it was a crime.” Today the same could be said about Syria which is a crime against humanity on a massive scale. Sooner or later someone ought to pay for that crime. The sooner the better.

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