Ethics & International Affairs Volume 14 (2000): Articles: Will There Be a Trial for the Khmer Rouge? [Abstract]

Dec 4, 2000

The scale of what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 is difficult to deal with (over one million Cambodians lost their lives), but efforts are now underway to bring at least some of the surviving leaders of the regime to justice. This essay explores the reasons for delay of the trials, citing:

  • The absence of international precedents prior to the 1990s;
  • The show trial of two Khmer Rouge leaders in 1979; and
  • The obstacles to a trial arising from geopolitical considerations in the 1980s (in which some powers now calling for a trial, including the United States, were effectively allied with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese-imposed regime in Phnom Penh).


In the 1990s, following the Paris Peace Accords and the brief UN protectorate over Cambodia, demands for a trial came from overseas and from Cambodian human rights groups. The Cambodian regime considered the show trials of 1979 sufficient, however, and in 1998 Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen urged his compatriots to "dig a hole and bury the past." Eager to regain foreign support for his regime after several brutal incidents in which political opponents were killed, Hun Sen has more recently agreed to limited international participation in a trial. A procedure targeting a few Khmer Rouge leaders seems likely in 2000, but Cambodian government control of the proceedings means that nothing like a truth commission or a wide-ranging inquiry will result.

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