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What’s Next for Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Victims?

After Death of ‘Brother No. 2,’ Millions Await Justice

Nuon Chea, No. 2 leader of the Khmer Rouge, sits in a court room before a hearing at the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. © 2018 Mark Peters/Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia via AP

Former deputy Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea, known as “Brother No. 2,” died last week at age 93 in Phnom Penh. His death has revived important questions about whether the millions of Cambodians who died under Khmer Rouge rule between 1975 and 1979 and their families have gotten the justice they deserve.

The Khmer Rouge tribunal, officially the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, convicted Nuon Chea of crimes against humanity and genocide. Tried alongside other Khmer Rouge leaders in the court’s “Case 002,” Nuon Chea was found guilty of a number of grave crimes, including planning and directing the forced evacuation of two million people from Phnom Penh and overseeing the torture and killing of over 14,000 people in the notorious Tuol Sleng detention center. In 2014, he was sentenced to life in prison.  

But many other senior Khmer Rouge leaders were spared their day in court. And while no one should doubt the importance of prosecuting Nuon Chea for his crimes, justice for Khmer Rouge atrocities should not have ended with the conviction of a handful of leaders. Many other senior Khmer Rouge officials have escaped justice because of Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge commander.

Hun Sen has repeatedly declared that beyond the defendants in Case 002, the tribunal should not prosecute others because it “could cause unrest.” At his direction, government-installed judges, prosecutors, and other court personnel at the tribunal obstructed and ultimately blocked further trials for Cases 003 and 004, which involved five senior Khmer Rouge commanders and officials. Current government officials have also been implicated, but never charged, for Khmer Rouge crimes.

The tribunal has cost international donors more than US$300 million. Human Rights Watch criticized tribunal’s paltry convictions as being “too little too late to save it from being regarded as a failure.”

With Nuon Chea’s death, governments should still demand that Hun Sen ensure the prosecution of others who tormented the Cambodian people during the Khmer Rouge genocide.

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