Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations

Cambodia, Gross Human Rights Violations in

Tuol Sleng Prison - Photograph Courtesy of Don Simon

The Cambodian atrocities of 1975-1979 represented one of the worst human rights tragedies of the 20th century. Approximately 1.7 million people (21% of the population of Cambodia at that time) were killed as a direct (execution) or indirect (i.e. famine) result of the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot (aka Saloth Sar). Pol Pot died on April 15, 1998 (apparently of heart failure) while under house arrest.

The roots of the crimes against humanity in Cambodia lay in the Vietnam War where the United States began to bomb Cambodia in order to counteract Vietcong insurgents using Cambodia as a rear base. In 1970 the government of Prince Sihanouk was overthrown in a military coup and the Khmer Rouge was able to seize power several years later (in 1975), largely by recruiting supporters from areas bombed by the Americans.

The Khmer Rouge followed a kind of utopian Maoist ideology which sought to free Cambodia from the “forces of oppression” such as capitalism and imperialism. The Khmer Rouge sought an agrarian, rural society isolated from the supposedly negative influences of the outside world. In order to accomplish this goal they forced millions of people to leave the cities and work on collective farms. They also attacked intellectualism by burning books and strove to destroy institutions such as the family and religion.  The Khmer Rouge distinguished between two groups in society: 1) the people or pracheachon (factory workers and peasants), and 2) "subpeople" or anoupracheachon (intellectuals, urban dwellers, and other "enemies" of the revolution).  Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge was an incredibly paranoid society where there was a constant search for “enemies” and relentless efforts to “re-educate” the population. Once enemies of the revolution were found they were often condemned to be imprisoned, tortured, and executed with cold bureaucratic efficiency in facilities such as the notorious Tuol Sleng Prison.

A 1979 trial before the Peoples’ Revolutionary Tribunal found Khmer Rouge Leaders Pol Pot and Ieng Sary guilty of the crime of genocide. Neither served any time in jail and Pol Pot died of natural causes in 1998 while the king pardoned Ieng Sary in 1996. The scope of Sary’s pardon will be determined by the recently created tribunal the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

The ECCC is a hybrid tribunal (partly national and partly international, like the Special Court for Sierra Leone) that was created in order to try the perpetrators of the gross human rights violations in Cambodia. From a legal standpoint, many of the atrocities in Cambodia may not constitute genocide because the groups targeted were largely social and political groups and not one of the protected groups under the Genocide Convention such as national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Nevertheless, the events in Cambodia can be considered as the crime against humanity of persecution because the definition of protected groups is broader in this case, and these were certainly systematic crimes with a special (discriminatory) intent. The case of Cambodia presents a strong argument for broadening the legal definition of genocide to encompass groups such as social classes that have been targeted in mass extermination campaigns.