The convictions last week of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, two leaders of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, will help bring closure to the grimmest chapter of Cambodian history. Between 1975 and 1979, the fanatical government, bent on creating an idealized agrarian state at any cost, emptied Cambodia’s cities and murdered over 1.7 million people. A war crimes tribunal found the two men guilty of murder and overseeing mass extermination, among other things, and sentenced them to life imprisonment.
The tribunals, a joint UN-Cambodian initiative headquartered in Phnom Penh, have been criticized for their sluggish pace. The court had previously handed down just one conviction in eight years of operation. There were legitimate complaints about the $200 million cost of the project, and about corruption in the process. And unfortunately, few secondary Khmer Rouge figures have been brought to trial. This approach, critics say, helped to protect former regime operatives now serving in the Cambodian government — including Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander.
Still, none of this diminishes the court’s achievement in convicting Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan. Unlike in high-profile human rights cases tried in The Hague and other neutral locations, this tribunal was acting more directly on behalf of the people of the country where the crime occurred. Just as importantly, the Cambodian lawyers and judges who tried the two defendants will help form the core of the country’s judiciary. It’s a sign that a new chapter of Cambodian history, marked by the rule of law, is beginning.