Alexander Hinton on the Aftermath of the 16-year-Long Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Alex Hinton is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, UNESCO Chair on Genocide Prevention, and author or editor of seventeen books, including It Can Happen Here: White Power and the Rising Threat of Genocide in the US (NYU, 2021), The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia (Oxford, 2018), and, most recently, Anthropological Witness: Lessons from the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (Cornell, 2022). This year he also received the American Anthropological Association’s 2022 Anthropology in the Media Award.
Labiba Hassan '25 interviewed Dr. Alex Hinton on on October 6, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Alex Hinton.

After sixteen years, the United Nations-backed tribunal established to prosecute the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime concluded its work last month. Why did it take so long for this tribunal to form and complete its work?

One answer involves geopolitics and domestic politics. The Khmer Rouge were deposed in 1979 after perpetrating a genocide in which about a quarter of the population was killed. At that time, a number of Cambodians, including Khmer Rouge who had fled purges to Vietnam, came back with 150,000 or more Vietnamese troops and deposed the Khmer Rouge regime. Some of the former Khmer Rouge remain in power in the government, including the prime minister – a factor that played into geopolitics. The New People's Republic of Kampuchea regime that was established in 1979 was linked to Vietnam, and through that, to the Soviet Union. 

Since this was during the Cold War, there was a long period during which Western bloc countries imposed sanctions on Cambodia. It took about a decade for Vietnamese troops to leave Cambodia and for passage of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which laid the basis for a U.N. election in 1993. That election was supposed to bring the Khmer Rouge, who were fighting as a guerrilla force against the People's Republic Kampuchea regime, into the voting process along with other rebel factions. But that didn't occur. The Khmer Rouge pulled out. Hopes for a tribunal dampened again as the Cambodian government offered defecting Khmer Rouge their same position in the government. So, during this phase through the mid to late 1990s, the government focused on reconciliation. 

By the end of the 1990s, the Khmer Rouge movement had collapsed, and this created the possibility for a tribunal at last. Civil society groups began to agitate — as did people who had been working for a long time to establish a tribunal. For example, the U.S. State Department gave money to Yale, which created the Yale Genocide Studies Program. They created the Documentation Center of Cambodia that gathered key documentation. So there had been people gathering evidence even as the negotiations went on. Eventually, the UN and the Cambodian government came to an agreement to establish a hybrid court in 2001. It began operation in 2006.

What were the goals of the tribunal and was it successful in reaching those goals?

The answer depends on whose goals we are talking about. If you talk about the international community, the goal was to bring the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge to justice and make sure that people who committed genocide would face accountability. They also wanted a larger number of trials and aspired to further contribute to the process of democratization and implementing human rights in Cambodia. There was hope that a tribunal would help transform Cambodian society as it continued dealing with the legacy of the authoritarian past.

The Cambodian government had a different set of goals. Many were themselves former Khmer Rouge, so the PRK government created a narrative that the true revolution had been subverted by a diabolical Hitler-like faction supported by China. At that time, as today, many people refer to the period of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia as “the Pol Pot period.” In other words, they focused attention and blame for what transpired on a small “deviant” faction of Khmer Rouge. This move was the basis of the legitimacy of the Cambodian People’s Party – the party that came out of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and holds power today in Cambodia. Their goal in creating a tribunal was to hold accountable this Pol Pot faction responsible for mass murder, genocide, and atrocity crimes. Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders had already died. Nuon Chea was alive and put on trial with a few others. 

Many of the victims also had a goal of achieving some sort of accountability, some sort of justice for what had transpired. They themselves had suffered and lost loved ones. Many of them would have liked it if lower ranking people were put on trial. Some have former perpetrators living in their villages. But by and large, I think many of them are satisfied, as polls have suggested, with just holding a small number of the top leaders accountable. 

In recent years, Cambodia turned away from its human rights achievements and turned towards China, closing the public sphere to an extent. Hope for the process of democratization on the part of some members of the international community has therefore not come to fruition in Cambodia – as it stands now.

Why were there only three convictions during the trials, given the death of over 1.7 million Cambodians? Why did the trials only hold the top tier of Khmer Rouge leaders responsible, rather than sub-divisional leaders as well?

There was tension between the Cambodian government and the international community regarding this issue. The U.N. wanted a tribunal that would be more like those held in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, one with more than a handful of trials. They wanted an international tribunal with international personnel. But Cambodia wanted to retain control over the process. That’s what happened. The parties compromised some.

The final agreement for the tribunal led to there being mixed personnel in most office. So, for example, there was an international and a national prosecutor. An elaborate process was set up to try to make it so the Cambodian government could not necessarily stop a case from going forward. There were supposed to be more cases, but they basically just were never taken up in the end. The Cambodian government did not want there to be more trials, and their position won at the end. 

Many Cambodians on the local level, if you ask them, would have liked more local perpetrators held accountable. But the polls that have been taken show that people are satisfied with symbolically holding just the very top Khmer Rouge leaders responsible.

What impact, both positive and negative, did this long process have on the Cambodian population?

That story is still being written. Justice is a slow process and more broadly, the tribunal is part of a longer transitional justice process in Cambodia. Transitional justice includes things like truth commissions, educational initiatives, memorialization, lustration — different mechanisms and reforms meant to provide some sort of redress for what happened in the past. This began all the way back to 1979, when the PRK government held a tribunal, though one dismissed by many in the West as a show trial. The PRK regime also initiatives local victim petitions and built memorials. 

This actually was a first phase of transitional justice in Cambodia that dates all the way back to 1979. This is when they established the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, which exists today and is a symbolic center where people go to learn about and memorialize what happened during Democratic Kampuchea, the period of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. The U.N. backed elections in 1993 and ensuing democratization were part of a second wave of transitional justice. The Tribunal is yet a third wave of transitional justice. Nobody's quite sure what's going to come next, especially given domestic politics in Cambodia. 

Now that the tribunals complete, what would and what could be possible next steps towards helping the Cambodian community heal?

We can look at it as part of a broader transitional justice process that has different waves. Now we're entering a new wave. There are numerous people working to ensure the court’s legacy — for example, by creating an archive. 

There has also been a lot of work on memorialization. I’m also an academic advisor to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which is a massive educational initiative. As I noted, education can be part of transitional justice. The Documentation Center of Cambodia, or DC-Ca, created a textbook and did a lot of teacher training. Parts of that were taken and integrated back into the national curriculum and Cambodia’s high schools so students learn about the genocide.

DC-Cam is also working on a project funded by USAID that focuses on the health of the survivors. Many survivors suffer a variety of illnesses and complaints, in part because of their age, but it's also due to their post-traumatic stress disorder from the Khmer Rouge years. 

Several different things are now going on as the tribunal begins to shut down. People are trying to figure out what more can be done. However, there is the challenge of donor fatigue and sometimes a lack of vision. But there are people on the ground actively trying to envision ways to keep this process of transitional justice moving forward. 

Despite the trial's convictions, the tribunal serves as an educational resource. What new insights on the genocide did the tribunal bring forward for yourself and for others?

Scholars had the basic outlines of what happened. I don't think that's really changed. What the tribunal has done is to provide an enormous amount of detail and fill in many gaps within that larger narrative. The tribunal conducted many interviews and gathered all sorts of documentation. Having this archive is important because people will continue to work with these materials for years. I think there is also a key impact on youths in Cambodia. In the mid 1990s, I talked to a director of the Genocide Museum who said his child didn't believe the sorts of things that happened under the Khmer Rouge were possible. If you talk to youths now, they believe it much more. There's been a generational change. Transitional justice is linked to such changes by establishing the truth and opening up new possibilities for educating the next generation about mass human rights violations in the past. 

Labiba Hassan CMC '25Student Journalist

Adam Carr at English Wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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