Genocide was officially recognised as a crime under international law in 1946. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This Convention has been ratified by 149 States (as of January 2018), though the principles enshrined in it’s doctrine are also part of general international law, which binds all countries. The word ‘genocide’ is associated, in the minds of most, with the atrocities committed by the Nazi Regime during World War II, as part of their “Final Solution.” Few are aware of the equally heinous and more recent genocide campaign led by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia.
The rise of the Khmer Rouge began during the early 1970’s when the secret bombing campaign by US troops during the Vietnam War led to widespread devastation and civil war in neighbouring Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge officially won the ensuing Civil War in 1975 and immediately began their communist re-education campaign. The aim of the Khmer Rouge was to socially engineer a classless communist society. In order to achieve this aim, the leaders of the regime believed that those of the ‘new age’ must be executed, leaving only working-class Cambodians behind to fulfil the communist manifesto.
In order to achieve this, people were rounded up and sent to concentration camps where they were sorted into groups. Cities were emptied, and anyone who represented modern ideals were sent to labour fields, in what later became known as the killing fields. Here, individuals were forced to work for no money, suffering physical abuse and starvation. Those targeted included, amongst others: Academics and intellectuals; those with a good education; those who spoke a foreign language; professionals such as doctors, nurses, teachers, etc.; ‘modern’ Cambodians, i.e. those who resided in cities; ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai; wealthy Cambodians; and religious leaders and their followers.
The Genocide has become known by historians as one of the most barbaric and murderous in recent history. A total of 2 million people died, ¼ of the overall population of Cambodia. People died of malnutrition, exhaustion, disease and hundreds of thousands were executed. The most famous of these execution sites was Tuol Sleng Centre, one of 96 such ‘prisons.’ The Khmer Rouge lacked the technological advancement available to the Nazi regime and their concentration camps. For this reason, most executions were carried out using blunt everyday instruments, including hammers and pickaxes. This resulted in excruciatingly slow deaths. Perhaps the most horrific of all is the reported practice of executing small children by bludgeoning their bodies against that of a tree. The killing was widespread and indiscriminate. Little regard was given to the deceased, as the common use of mass graves clearly shows.
It is frightening to think that such a horrific genocide could occur only 35 years ago and only 30 years after that of the Nazi Regime. Tuol Sleng Centre now operates as a historical site- frequented by tourists and locals alike. This killing field allows the visitor to take a harrowing step into the not-so-distant past. Audio testimony of the handful of people who escaped tell stories of loud propaganda music on constant loop to drown out the screams of those who were being executed. They speak of families ripped apart at the seams and people targeted for reasons as trivial as possessing a pair of glasses. They speak of the death of humanity and the corruption of power, all the while sending a powerful message of warning to leaders of the future. In the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge’s reign, some of its remaining leaders were put on trial in a UN-backed Cambodian Court, resulting in the conviction of three officials. While this is a decisive win for the legal system, there is no doubt that genocide is a crime which no amount of justice can negate.
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