Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge perpetrated one of the great crimes of the 20th century. Some two million people died under this radical Communist regime that ruled Cambodia through a cruel and ruthless system of forced labor, persecution, and execution aimed at bringing about an agrarian utopia. The regime’s actions took the lives of one quarter to one third of Cambodia’s population in the “Killing Fields,” one of the largest cases of mass slaughter since the Holocaust.
After the Holocaust, the victorious Allied forces moved quickly to set up a system of justice at Nuremberg to hold the Nazis accountable for their crimes. The first trial was held less than one year after liberation. Amazingly, it has taken more than three decades for the world to bring the Khmer Rouge to trial. At the end of 2012, only one person had been convicted for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
In October 2012, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum sent a delegation on a bearing witness trip to Phnom Penh to observe the trials of some of the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Michael Chertoff—former US Secretary of Homeland Security and federal appeals judge and current chairman of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience—led the delegation. The group also visited memorial sites and met with judges, lawyers, and NGOs monitoring the case, as well as with Cambodian officials and the US ambassador to Cambodia.
Perhaps most significant, the delegation met with survivors of the Killing Fields and heard stories of the immense and continuing impact the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge have had on the people of Cambodia. Every single person in the country has been affected, even those who were not born at the time, by the devastation the regime left in its wake.