It help to alleviate my disappointment in, and bewilderment at, the relentless criticism of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia by some of my brothers and sisters in the human-rights movement when I remember that many of them have not had the same experience as I have.
I happen to be of that generation who, throughout their adolescent years in the 1960s and ’70s would turn on the nightly television news to watch the unfolding events in Indochina with an increasing fascination and abhorrence.
Even at that tender age, it was obvious that great crimes against humanity were being committed on a daily basis.
Then, in February of 1980, while sitting in an aeroplane, I opened a news magazine to read with chilling horror about the fate of my friends Stuart Glass and Kerry Hamill.
Glass, a Canadian, Hamill, a New Zealander, and British citizen John Dewhurst had been captured by Khmer Rouge naval forces while sailing past the Cambodian coast in September, 1978.
Glass was probably the lucky one; he was shot and killed at sea.
Hamill and Dewhurst were taken to Tuol Sleng prison, where the last signed portions of their lengthy “confessions” were dated exactly two months after their capture. They were executed soon after.
This perhaps helps explain my acute awareness of the international community’s abysmal record in relation to Cambodia.
Not least in this series of gross betrayals was the United Nations’ insistence on recognising the clearly insane and genocidal Pol Pot forces as the legitimate Cambodian government throughout the 1980s.
This was not mere symbolism; it enabled the Khmer Rouge to rebuild and to wage another decade of devastation. For those of
us who cared, it seemed that Cambodia’s agony would be eternal.
When peace and sanity finally arrived in the early 1990s, many of us hoped that some sort of justice would be applied to those most responsible.
These sentiments were tempered by the knowledge that none of the other readily identifiable culprits responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotians had faced any accountability.
Indeed, when UNTAC came to Cambodia in 1992, it failed to conduct any war-crimes investigations at all.
Fast-forward to February, 2010, and I found myself sitting in the public gallery of a fully constituted combined United Nations and Cambodian war crimes trial.
The man who directed the torture, interrogation and murder of at least 13,000 people at Tuol Sleng, including my friends, was sitting in the dock just 10 metres away.
In the two years since the trials began, I have had the opportunity to closely observe one of the most open, exhaustive and supremely fair trials ever conducted anywhere – and the commencement of a second, even more thorough, exercise in justice.
And all this is occurring right here in Cambodia, in the very midst of the millions of ordinary people whose previous lives had been so comprehensively destroyed.
A population that, for more than 20 years, had been the plaything of a handful of mass murderers – some from within their own country and some from among the world’s most powerful leaders.
A nation that, just 30 short years ago, was a complete wasteland.
For many of us, this is an occurrence of miracle and wonder.
Perhaps, I thought, there was still hope for those who believe in the better side of human nature, for those who strive to advance human consciousness – indeed, for the further development of human civilisation.
Yet it seems this is all a great injustice to some – a transgression that must be vilified and impugned at every opportunity.
I speak, of course, of those preachers of human-rights perfectionism who are insisting that every single aspect of the Khmer Rouge tribunal is consistent with some fantastical, utopian (and, in fact, non-existent) “international standard of justice”.
Lieutenant William Calley served 42 months of home detention for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in March, 1968.
This, I believe, was the sum total of “international-standard justice” delivered by the rest of the world for one of modern history’s darkest chapters: America’s, and its allies’, war in Indochina.
If the UN and the human-rights NGOs could more fully recognise the Khmer Rouge tribunal as a unique landmark in international justice, then perhaps they might be able to play a more constructive role – at least until the rest of the world catches up with what is going on in Cambodia.
The trials under way at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia are the only formal justice ever applied, and ever likely to be applied, to the whole Indochinese mega-atrocity.
Paul Everingham is accredited by ECCC Public Affairs as an independent researcher.