The US ambassador to Cambodia, Joseph A. Mussomeli, has an interesting opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) in which he writes that the Khen Rouge, who killed millions of their fellow Cambodians in the mid to late 1970’s, have gone completely unpunished for their crimes of genocide. Mr. Mussomeli is calling for a tribunal so the citizens of Cambodia can have some kind of justice before these genocidal killers die peacefully.
We hunger for something else at least as important as food: justice. And for too long, justice has been denied. Those who were responsible for the genocide for the most part live safe, free, and even prosperous lives among the very people they terrorized. There is not a single family in Cambodia that did not have fathers, mothers, siblings, aunts or uncles who perished in the slaughter.
Thirty years later, the country is still lost and broken, in more than just political and economic terms. The devastation is also psychological and spiritual. All the country’s flaws — from trafficking in persons to the rampant corruption that pervades every level of government — have been exacerbated by the failure to bring the leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice. The culture of impunity that we see throughout Cambodia today is rooted in Cambodians’ belief that conventional crimes pale beside the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, and that few crimes are so great that they must be punished. After all, the thinking goes, even the Khmer Rouge leaders got off scot-free.
A Khmer Rouge tribunal is a necessary first step to healing the three-decades-old wound that continues to fester. There will remain severe limitations on how far Cambodia can reform until some degree of justice is rendered.
(Correction: Ambassador Mussomeli is the Ambassador from the United States in Cambodia.)