Thursday 17 December 2009

Genocide and Cambodia

For more than three decades, people have spoken of the ‘Cambodian genocide’, referring to the atrocities carried out by the Khmer rouge from 1975 to 1979. The term ‘auto-genocide’ has sometimes been used, because the primary victims of the mass killings by Khmers were Khmers themselves. The United States, and other countries, adopted legislation referring to the ‘Cambodian genocide’. Legally, this was never very convincing, because genocide is a crime motivated by hate for ethnic groups and it seems unlikely that the term would apply to killing within an ethnic group. It was better to use the legal qualification ‘crimes against humanity’. But at the time, there was considerable uncertainty as to whether crimes against humanity could be committed in peacetime, a result of the Nuremberg jurisprudence. Aware of the weakness of their position, some of those who insisted on using the label ‘genocide’ in Cambodia adopted a fall-back position, which was to point to some minority groups, notably the Muslim Cham, who were also victims of the Khmer Rouge.
Since the internationalized prosecutions began some years ago, observers have awaited the approach the prosecutors would take to legal qualification of the acts of the Khmer Rouge. The first indictments charged crimes against humanity, but not genocide. Yesterday, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia issued genocide charges against two Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary. The charges related to attacks on two minority groups, the Cham Muslims and the Vietnamese. According to Youk Change, who directs the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, estimates of the Cham who were killed range from 100,000 to 400,000, but it is not known how many Vietnamese were killed. However, the policy of the Extraordinary Chambers to charge the attacks on the majority Khmer population as crimes against humanity but not genocide remains intact. According to the spokesman for the court, Lars Olsen: ‘It is impossible to say it was an intent to destroy the Khmers. The perpetrators were of the same nationalities as the victims.’
Thanks to Kjell Anderson.

1 comment:

Robert Cribb said...

The claim that the Cambodian killings cannot be genocide because Khmers were killing Khmers is problematic. The UN definition of genocide specifies it as the attempted destruction of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group. There is no prima facie requirement in the definition that ethnicity and religion be linked as they were in the case of the Jews. In the case of Cambodia, there was a clear attempt to extirpate Buddhism, the religion of the majority of Khmers. It might reasonably be argued that other factors such as class antagonism also drove the Cambodian killings, but this was true of the persecution of the Jews as well (there was a religious element that was not just racial, and a class element connected with the perceived prosperity of the Jews).
A separate issue is whether it is useful in practice to exclude religious persecution from the definition, but as it stands the current definition seems to leave no doubt that the Cambodian killings were genocide.

Robert Cribb