Opinion: Ieng Sary's Demise

At about the time of the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the former Khmer Rouge leader of Cambodia Ieng Sary died at the age of 87. Since late 2011 he had been on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the period of Khmer Rouge rule from April 1975 to January 1979 where around 1.6 million (and some estimates go as high as 2 million) of Cambodia's 7 million population died as a result of the Khmer Rouge's policies and practices.

Pope Francis 'blessed' and prayed (if I understand it fairly) not only for Catholics but for the 'world'. My query is what would Pope Francis have said to Ieng Sary's actions during the time the Cambodian murderer was in it? This thought comes to mind since the election of the new Pope and the death of a top leader of the Khmer Rouge accused of committing one of the worst violations of human rights in the post- Second World War occurred contemporaneously. The Pope's election is rightly much more well-known and indeed more significant (not to say at least as a whole) more positive news than the man whose crimes remain formally unacknowledged either by himself or by the Cambodian and international tribunal that had tried him.

Ieng Sary's death, before his trial concluded, leaves a void in Cambodian society, if not the world's. The vast number of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge stands in danger of never being acknowledged. Cambodia's president, Hun Sen, very publicly wants no more Khmer Rouge leaders to be put on trial and those on trial now may, like Ieng Sary, die of old age or infirmity before their trials conclude.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the 'killing of the juridical man' - or man as a legal entity - or (in these days to be politically correct perhaps it should be killing of the 'juridical person') is worse than physical killing. If there is no juridical acknowledgment, let alone a remedy for the killing and abuses of persons it worsens the intensity and the sense of loss and grievance produced from these rights violations. And the philosopher Thomas Nagel stated that on the subject of massive violations of human rights there is a difference between 'knowledge' and 'acknowledgment'.

Even if some people (most though not all Cambodians) and all scholars on modern Cambodian history know or are aware of the massive violation of human rights in what was then Democratic Kampuchea, if there is no formal finding or acknowledgment of such events there is a legal and moral void to fill, to say the least. Lack of juridical acknowledgment regarding the moral and legal responsibility of the main perpetrators of the massive human rights violations in Democratic Kampuchea is therefore a perversion of justice.

To give a further example of –in a comparative context –more remote but no less real human rights violations it is 'known' that there were genocides committed over about two hundred years on the indigenous people of South America by mainly the Spanish conquistadors (a topic of possible interest with the election of the first ever Pope from Latin America) but there has not been formal juridical recognition of these regrettable facts of history The genocides of the indigenous peoples of Central and South America occurred mainly if not almost exclusively in the distant past or previous centuries (though a few activists may dispute that it had only occurred in past centuries before the 20th century).

On the other hand the perpetration of the crimes against humanity and genocide in Cambodia occurred fewer than four decades ago. Even in Argentina as well as Chile and a few other previous South American countries with oppressive military regimes and human rights violations, there have at least been a legal recognition of sorts of the fact of these atrocities. In a few cases, courts in Argentina -where the new Pope hails from-- as well as a few South American countries,the top leaders of previous South American regimes had been held legally accountable in their own courts though needless to say this could only occur after their overthrow or after easing them from power.

These previous South American military regimes 'flourished' roughly around the same time as the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. starvation, torture and death in Cambodia which lasted from the mid to the late 1970s. There is a pressing moral and legal need for juridical acknowledgment of these atrocities in Cambodia and the pace and the mode in which the mixed UN Cambodian tribunal has been operating leaves much to be desired. The death (in and of itself) of Ieng Sary is not a matter of lament at all but it is indeed a matter of great regret that he did not 'acknowledge' his crimes and the tribunal that tried him did not have the chance to make a formal finding regarding his misdeeds before the demise of 'Brother No.3' of the Khmer Rouge regime.

(Myint Zanis is a Professor in the Faculty of Law, Multimedia University, Malacca, Malaysia. Email myintzan@yahoo.com.au)