Human bones jutted up from the ground as I walked the “killing fields” of Cambodia several years ago. This jarring image flashed before me as I read news of the opening of the UN-backed trial of three prominent leaders of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970’s. The story by Seth Mydans is in today’s edition of the New York Times. Also worth reading is a poignant piece by Michael Abramowitz and Mark Sarna of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum about the trial and its significance that appeared yesterday in the Washington Post.
The trial is extremely important not only for the people of Cambodia but for the entire world. Those who commit genocide or mass atrocities must be brought to justice regardless of how many obstacles need to be overcome or how much time it takes. Otherwise, mass killing is one giant step closer to happening again. Unfortunately, another genocidal monster not only remains at large but in charge of a government that is unleashing its killing machine yet again.
Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for committing the very types of crimes in Darfur that the Khmer Rouge leaders stand accused of – crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. But while the aging leaders of the Khmer Rouge follow the proceedings of their trial inside an international court, Bashir is launching his next wave of horror in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile State in Sudan. Hundreds of thousands have already been forced from their homes, untold numbers have been systematically murdered and as many as a million lives stand at risk. The butcher behind the Darfur genocide continues his systematic killing even as he receives the red carpet treatment from countries like China, or talks about the “path toward normalization” with representatives of the United States.
As in all genocides, the masters of the Cambodian genocide couldn’t do it alone. They needed accomplices, and many more unwilling to act to stop the Khmer Rouge. China served as their leading international patron. The United States turned its back on Cambodia’s victims as the horror unfolded and supported the Khmer Rouge as it moved its international Cold War chess pieces in the late 70’s. As Abramowitz and Sarna point out, the United States ultimately became a driving force behind the tribunal of the Khmer Rouge leaders. But it came far too late for millions.
It is good that those responsible for genocide are being held accountable in Cambodia. But it is imperative that those who continue to commit atrocities in Sudan – starting with Bashir – are stopped and held fully to account. The United States can’t turn back the clock and help save those who are buried in the killing fields of Cambodia. But it can help stop history from repeating itself in Sudan.