Joseph Mussomeli: "The Worst Genocide Ever" (No, not the Holocaust)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Mussomeli is U.S. ambassador to Cambodia.]

PHNOM PENH -- One of the greatest crimes of the 20th century has gone unpunished for 30 years. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge systematically tortured, starved and "smashed" approximately 2.2 million fellow Cambodians, or between one-fourth and one-third of the entire population. Their list of enemies was long: the indigenous Muslim population, the Vietnamese minority, Buddhist monks, city dwellers, anyone with a diploma, and especially fellow Khmer Rouge suspected of treason, among others. All these groups and many others -- along with wives, husbands and children -- were annihilated in arguably the worst genocide ever perpetrated.

Why do I say "the worst genocide ever," when there is such stiff competition in a world that sometimes seems to have lost any sense of compassion? Because this genocide stands alone as having failed to bring any of the guilty to justice. From the Nuremberg Trials to the more recent tribunals in Bosnia, Serbia and Rwanda, the victims of the 20th century's worst genocides have been given some semblance of justice, some degree of retribution. But not here in Cambodia.

Why does this matter? Some would argue that expending scarce funding for a 30-year-old crime is absurd, when Cambodia suffers from many other, more immediate problems. They say that we should look to the future, and that the money should instead be used to feed the hungry or to provide medical care to the sick. Certainly the poor ought to be fed and the sick ought to get medical care. But is that all we can do?

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....

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