Genocide Against Muslims in Cambodia

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Gregory Stanton remembers the Cambodian Genocide and the atrocities commited by the Khmer Rouge.

From 1975 to 1978 the government in Democratic Kampuchea, commonly called the Khmer Rouge or the Pol Pot regime, intentionally murdered at least half a million people and subjected a million others to forced labor, starvation, and refusal of medical treatment that resulted in death.  One fifth of the Cambodian population died in three years.  Kampuchea was turned into a vast concentration camp.

Extermination camps were established all across the country, in which the Khmer Rouge leaders ordered the murder of all intellectuals, all officials of previous governments, anyone who complained about the labor or lack of food, all “class enemies” and all of their spouses, children, and families.

Amazingly enough, the Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis during the Holocaust, kept records of what they did—perhaps a sign of the genocidal mindset. The Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, for example, has records of 14,000 prisoners who were murdered. Photographs were taken of most of the victims. They include women and children. The evidence of genocide is strong.

Finally, this past year, Comrade Duch, the Commandant of Tuol Sleng Prison has been tried and convicted of crimes against humanity, and sentenced to thirty years in prison, which effectively means he will spend the rest of his life there.

During this genocide, the United Nations did nothing.  Communist China actually helped the Khmer Rouge commit their crimes. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights [U.N. Commission] was apprised of human rights violations in Kampuchea as early as 1977, when Australia, the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Norway brought charges before the U.N. Commission for massive violations of human rights and produced thousands of pages of testimony and documentation. (See, e.g., U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/414/Add. 1-10 (1978).) The Subcommission for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Minorities appointed a rapporteur who concluded in the Boudhiba report that this was the worst case of human rights violations since the Nazi era. (U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1335 (1979)) However, the Boudhiba report was buried—tabled—and the U.N. Commission did nothing with it.

I lived in Cambodia in 1980 and helped to set up the relief program there for the United States National Council of Churches and CARE. As a Yale law student at the time, I was struck by the fact that Democratic Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge) had committed massive human rights violations that had not been redressed through international law. These crimes were clearly ones to which international law should be applied and that international lawyers should do something about.

Even before I went to Kampuchea, from reading books like Cambodia Year Zero by Francois Ponchaud, I concluded that genocide had been committed and that the Khmer Rouge could be charged before the World Court with violating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide [Genocide Convention]. (Jan. 12, 1951, 78 U.N.T.S. 277.)

Cambodia has been a party without reservation to the Genocide Convention since 1950. In 1957 the Cambodian government also accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the World Court in all matters under article 36 of the Statute of the Court. (Sept. 9, 1957, 277 U.N.T.S. 77.) So it was a country that could be brought before the International Court of Justice for violations of the Genocide Convention.

What was needed was an effort to document what had been done, and then to find parties to take the case to the World Court. The International Court of Justice in the Hague was the only court in 1980.  This was before creation of the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, East Timor, and Sierra Leone in the 1990’s.  When I worked in Phnom Penh in 1980, the Cambodian government gave me permission to collect the evidence, and I approached several human rights experts and proposed putting together the case.

In 1982, I founded the Cambodian Genocide Project, Inc., which was sponsored by two committees of the American Bar Association. I took numerous trips to gather evidence in Cambodia and also travelled to Australia and New Zealand to lobby those governments to take the case. But they wouldn’t touch it.  And the US, UK, and other Western governments continued to recognize the Vietnamese-backed government that had overthrown the Khmer Rouge, and they continued to hold Cambodia’s seat in the UN until 1993.  The Cold War froze any effort to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice until 1993.

I never gave up.  I helped form a coalition called the Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge, and in 1994, we finally reversed US foreign policy against trial of the Khmer Rouge.  Since then I have worked with the Cambodian government to negotiate with the United Nations to form of a court to try the Khmer Rouge leaders.  It came into being in 2006 as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  I drafted the rules of procedure for the tribunal.  For the first time, victims play an active role in the trial of cases.

But were the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge “genocide”, or simply “crimes against humanity.”  Some scholars said their crimes were not genocide because Khmers were killing Khmers, largely for political reasons. Genocide is defined by the Genocide Convention as intentional destruction in whole or in part of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such. (Genocide Convention, supra, at art. 2.)

Against one group, however, the Khmer Rouge crimes were clearly genocide.  The Muslim Cham minority, a community that has lived in Cambodia for a thousand years, was especially targeted for extermination. Whole villages of Chams were exterminated and only half of the Cham survived.

In the second trial of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, the top four surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge, will finally be tried for genocide against the Muslim Cham.

I made many trips to Cambodia during the past thirty years to gather eyewitness testimony against the Khmer Rouge for the murder of the Cham Muslims and the Buddhist monks. Whole Cham villages were destroyed and entire families were murdered. The Cham who survived have testified to us about the way their children were taken away from them to be raised as Khmers. Removal of an ethnic group’s children is one definition of genocide under the Genocide Convention. (Genocide Convention, supra, at art. 2(e).) Mental harm to members of minority groups is also specifically covered by the Genocide Convention. Buddhist monks were also disrobed and subjected to especially hard forced labor which killed over half of them.

The genocide in Kampuchea was intentionally ordered—we have several of those orders. One order, for example was this: “The Cham nation no longer exists on Kampuchean soil belonging to the Khmer. Accordingly, Cham nationality, language, customs and religious beliefs must be immediately abolished. Those who fail to obey this order will suffer all the consequences for their acts of opposition to Angkar [the Khmer Rouge high command].” (U.N. Doc. A/34/569, at 9 (1979)) We also have testimony as to how these orders were taken all the way from the top down to the local level. Much of the testimony is on videotape.  Much more will be presented live in court.

Many people are now involved in the effort to try the Khmer Rouge for their crimes of genocide. I have worked on this since 1980 when I first proposed that the surviving leaders of Democratic Kampuchea should be tried for genocide. We gathered massive evidence for a trial. We finally got the UN to work with the Cambodian government to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice. Once you have been to Cambodia and talked with people—and every person there has lost someone—the cries of the victims will be with you for the rest of your life.

Communist atheism has been the most genocidal force in history.  It has killed even more people than Nazism and colonialism.  Our estimates are that the Soviet Union murdered over sixty-two million of its citizens between 1917 and 1993.  Communist China also had a death toll between 1949 and 2000 of over sixty million.  Atheism ignores the fact that every human being is created by God, so it considers the value of a human life only what is useful for the state.  There are still several Communist states, such as North Korea, where such negation of human life has cost millions of lives.

All people of religious faith should fiercely defend the sacred value of every life, and reject atheism as a secular religion.  The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was one of the worst examples of atheistic genocide.


The Anti-Genocide Alliance

The problem with tribunals to try genocide is that they come too late.  We need to create an international mass movement to prevent genocide before it happens.

I am convinced that the faith communities of the world – Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish – could become a powerful force to prevent genocide.  In the past, they have all too often been the cause of genocide.

Genocides against Jews and Muslims by Christians, against Shiite Muslims by Sunni Muslims (and vice versa), against Kurdish Muslims by Arab Muslims, against Bosnian Muslims by Christian Serbs have taken millions of lives over the centuries.  The death toll of native Americans by Christian Spain, Portugal, and England, and later by America was among the worst genocides in human history.

Yet the founders of every one of the world religions affirmed the unity of the human race.  How is it that we have so perverted this message of human unity and committed genocide against each other again and again?

I propose that we dedicate ourselves to creation of an inter-faith Anti-Genocide Alliance.  It could preach human unity, and oppose the violent forces of genocide.  It would become an early warning movement to oppose the forces that divide the human race.

I very much regret that I am not able to be with you at this conference today, because I would have very much appreciated the opportunity to discuss with you how we can unite Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and all religious groups in a Campaign to End Genocide in this twenty-first century.

Best wishes,

Greg Stanton



By:  Gregory H. Stanton, President of the  Genocide Watch