First, the good news. After years of wrangling the Cambodian government and the United Nations have, earlier this month, finally agreed on the outline of a Tribunal to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. The notorious Pol Potâ€™s Khmer Rouge, was responsible for the genocide of at least several hundred thousand people during its reign in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
Now, for the bad news. The Tribunal will not try Richard Nixonâ€™s henchman Henry Kissinger, or other US state officials and military personnel responsible for the genocide of at least several hundred thousand Cambodian civilians between 1969 and 1973. The Cambodian government briefly thought about including this in the terms of reference for the Tribunal but (surprise, surprise) finally did not do so. The United Nations, (busy counting how much the US owes it in dues), did not even think about it.
So here we are again. On territory extremely familiar to so many of us. The inability of our world, to punish Western political and military leaders for war crimes, crimes against humanity and YES - even genocide. While a few doddering, old remnants of the Khmer Rouge regime will soon stand trial on such charges their doddering American counterparts will pompously pontificate about these â€˜Oriental despotsâ€™ on prime time TV talk shows.
Surely Mr Sagar, you must be joking ! There are no war criminals in the West, there never have been and there never will be. And that is because the West preaches the â€˜rule of lawâ€™ to the rest of humanity on one simple condition. That the concept will never be used to punish the leaders of the West, whatever their crimes. For they are THE UNTOUCHABLES !
How boring. This is going to mean that the villains of our world will always end up having Eastern, Middle-Eastern, African and Slavic names. Strange, un-pronounceable names. For Godâ€™s sake give us a break and put someone with a name like George, Dick, Tony or Henry in the dock. (Think of those delicate-tongued CNN newscasters sometime)
It was not always like this though. Go through European history and there are plenty of â€˜leadersâ€™ with pronounceable names who got punished properly when their people decided they had enough. One prominent fellow called Louis XVI (whose name nicely rolls off the tongue) literally lost his head on the streets of Paris when the French lost their heads over his trespasses.
I agree that was all a long time ago and the world has changed somewhat. Or rather the Western public has mellowed quite a bit since anyway. In our times Western leaders guilty of mass murder in foreign lands get charged, at worst, for:
a) planting taping devices in their opponentâ€™s office/bedroom, or
b) lying to their own people or (horror of horrors)
c) lying to their opponents on tape about what they did in their office/bedroom.
To go back to Cambodia- isnâ€™t that all supposed to be history and of no significance to what is happening right now around the globe ? Who cares about a mass slaughter from way back in the seventies when we are right now witnessing the initial round of a new one in Iraq â€“ complete with commercial breaks ? (donâ€™t go away, we will be back soon. Tring, tring !)
To begin with, Pol Potâ€™s genocide is not yet â€˜historyâ€™ to all those families in Phnom Penh who lost kin to his regimeâ€™s mad schemes, torture and outright murder. Nor is the US carpet bombing â€˜historyâ€™ to those men and women in the Cambodian countryside who still wake up screaming in the night, hallucinating about American bombs raining down on their village. And least of all for those who still lose a life or a limb to the unexploded ordnance from that â€˜secret warâ€™ which clutters this unfortunate country.
All of them need a sense of closure for the various miseries visited on them. A sense of closure that will forever remain incomplete if only the native devils are prosecuted and not the foreign ones.
Secondly, it is my contention that the rise of the neo-cons to power in the US with their ambitions of world conquest has been possible in recent years only because their political predecessors never really got punished for what they did. In the view of the neo-cons the story of the Vietnam War is like this- â€˜the only mistake we made was to have lost the war. If only the American people had shut up for a while, if the Vietnamese had not fought so hard and we had time to commit a few more war crimes the ending would have been quite differentâ€™.
And how did they come to hold such ridiculous views? I think, simply because the world was too lenient towards the perpetrators of the Vietnam War. By accusing all those war criminals and violators of international laws for lesser crimes the real message they got was â€˜Aha ! here I am, a mass murderer and they insist on calling me a bicycle thief !â€™ (But that was to be expected anyway given the history of crime and punishment in the United States. Remember, Al Capone was never caught for murder, extortion, bootlegging but for an income tax fraud.)
For example, the impeachment of Richard Nixon for snooping on of his rivals- while very welcome- was not a punishment proportional to his crimes against humanity. That was like, say, indicting Pol Pot on charges of spying on his Cambodian opponents. Picture the headline â€œ Pol Pot Spied!â€ Gasp!
Similarly the calls for impeaching George Bush Jr. for â€˜lyingâ€™ about WMDs in Iraq â€“ though very necessary- are grossly inadequate given the true extent of the damage caused by his brutal, illegitimate war on Iraq. That is really the equivalent of booking the hijackers of September 11 for air traffic violations.
And I mention September 11 precisely because the toll of civilian deaths in Iraq is already well over that caused by that heinous attack on the WTC towers. One independent count of civilian casualties in Iraq during the Anglo-American invasion by the Associated Press stands at 3432. Another one from the Iraq Body Count project puts the figure as high as 10,000. Our world is strewn with multiple September 11s perpetrated on weaker nations by Western leaders who have hijacked the very notion of what the â€˜rule of lawâ€™ is supposed to mean.
So here is the third reason why the crimes of US officials in their â€˜secretâ€™ war against Cambodia should never be forgotten. Because of what forgetting a past genocide does to the nation responsible. It inevitably leads them on the path to a future one.
Let me give a clue. While explaining to his Nazi cabal why imposing a Final Solution to the â€˜Jewish questionâ€™ would not be opposed by the West Adolf Hitler was supposed to have said â€œWho, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?â€ referring to the early 20th Century massacre of over a million Armenians by the Turks. And so we hear in similar refrain from the neo-cons â€œWho, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Cambodians ?â€
A fourth and very important reason why impunity is so dangerous to the societies it flourishes in because of what it could do to those within its fold. Impunity gives rise to inflexible attitudes among the elites who enjoy it. A rigidity of opinion and action that ultimately leads to the severe repression of their own people and even civil conflict. We know this only too well from our experiences in the developing world where, on the simplest of issues, the elites refuse to budge even an inch, except on the edge of a bazooka.
I wonder what role the impunity enjoyed for long by the slave owners of the southern United States played in sparking off the American civil war. Or how the impunity enjoyed by European elites vis a vis their colonies resulted in the warped worldview that in turn led to the two World Wars. The impunity in which several generations of US elites have been reveling so far could be headed on a dangerously similar path.
Even this list of reasons is not complete though, because the impunity of Western elites has other severe consequences also for those of us in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. It emboldens manifold the local satraps, who rule us, in their violations of human rights and their attempts to crush every notion of democracy.
I will give you an example from Thailand, which is by no means the worst country in Asia when it comes to human rights violations. Through their own, brilliant struggles and aided also by the end of the Cold War in the late eighties the Thai people have in the past decade overthrown their legacy of harsh military dictatorships and are in the process of building a vibrant democracy.
Or I should say- they were in the process of doing so till a few months ago when the government of Thaksin Shinawatra started its so called â€˜ War on Drugsâ€™ here. Ostensibly meant to wipe out the widespread menace of amphetamine addiction in Thai society the War has within just three months seen the killing of over 2500 â€˜suspectedâ€™ drug dealers.
While the government claims most of them died in â€˜intra-gang warfareâ€™ human rights groups accuse the Thai police of murdering most of them in cold blood. Responding to a US State Department statement expressing concern over these killings the Thai PM said â€œ Who are they to teach us about human rights ?â€ Rightly said, but for the wrong reasons.
Elsewhere in Asia governments in India, Indonesia and the Philippines have started citing the US War on Terror as an excuse for violating the human rights of their citizens brazenly. Who knows what they will cite the US invasion of Iraq for.
While much of what I said just now makes for pretty depressing reading, I must point out that it is not entirely a pessimistic scenario for all those waging a global battle against impunity everywhere. THE FACT IS that though the battle of memory over forgetting is far from over, it is still very much alive and kicking.
THE FACT IS that the International Criminal Court, the first permanent international judicial body capable of trying individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, is today a living reality. Over 139 countries have signed and 90 of these already ratified the ICCâ€™s Rome Statute. In mid-June the ICC appointed its first prosecutor.
THE FACT IS that the most arrogant American regime in modern history is today going around the globe cajoling, coercing even the smallest of governments to exempt US citizens from being prosecuted by the ICC. Shameful as the attempts are of the Bush regime to subvert the ICC it also shows the real fear that the very idea of possible punishment has sown in the hearts of the US elites. Thatâ€™s not a bad thing- to give back to a government some of the fear it has so freely distributed amidst its public. (My suggestion- be more generous â€“ give back all the fear you have to your government. Their need is surely greater than yours.)
THE FACT IS that dozens of groups around the world are carefully documenting the war crimes committed in Iraq and preparing a flurry of law suits to bring the leaders of the UK and US to justice.
THE FACT IS that the â€œUniversal Competenceâ€ law which allows Belgian courts to try those responsible for carrying out crimes against humanity and genocide no matter where they were perpetrated is making it difficult for the NATO headquarters to operate out of Brussels (given the large number of war criminals who run the organization)
THE FACT IS that the courts of the US-led occupation in Iraq have been forced to admit a case filed by an Iraqi shepherd who is seeking 200 million dollars in damages from the US military for the deaths of 17 members of his family as well as 200 sheep in a missile strike. This will be just the first in a long series of such cases.
THE FACT IS that the UNTOUCHABLES are soon about to be â€˜TOUCHEDâ€™ and it all promises to be a very â€˜touching and movingâ€™ experience indeed. One that they and their acolytes will not forget all their lives.
Satya Sagar is a journalist based in Thailand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org