Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tribunal ignoring US role, says Chomsky

Tribunal ignoring US role, says Chomsky

Tribunal ignoring US role, says Chomsky


Linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky speaks to the Post's George McLeod about the ‘farcical' shortcomings of Cambodia's war crimes court.

Photo by:

Noam Chomsky says the Khmer Rouge trial is a farce and that American leaders should be on trial for

illegally bombing Cambodia and supporting the Lon Nol dictatorship.

A history of political resistance

Noam Chomsky is one of the world's most noted political thinkers and was called the most important intellectual alive by The New York Times. He rose to prominence during the Vietnam War, becoming a leading left-wing critic of US policy. He is a prolific author and critic of the media, and is a tenured professor at the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology. His expertise on Cambodia dates back to the 1970s, and he has written extensively on the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s. In this interview with the Post, Chomsky discusses the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the American bombing of Cambodia and Cambodia's expanding ties with Israel. 

Top Khmer Rouge leaders are now in detentionat the war crimes tribunal. Is a UN-backed trial the best way forward, or should it be left to the Cambodian people?

 I think it should be left to the Cambodian people. I can't imagine a UN international trial. But then, it shouldn't be limited to the Cambodians. After all, an international trial that doesn't take into account Henry Kissinger or the other authors of the American bombing and the support of the KR after they were kicked out of the country . That's just a farce - especially with what we now know about the bombing of Cambodia since the  release of the Kissinger-Nixon tapes and the release of declassified documents during the Clinton years. There has been a very different picture of the scale and intensity of the bombing and its genocidal scale. For an international trial to omit this would be scandalous.

How far down the chain of command should prosecutions go?

I think that's a decision for Cambodians to make. The questions should be: Should [the prosecutions] be limited to KR criminals, or how about criminals from the Lon Nol regime, or later, but those are decisions the Cambodians need to make.

You can make a case for an internationally run trial, but as I said, it would be absolutely farcical if it was restricted to Cambodians.

The records say that the US wanted to "use anything that flies against anything that moves" [during the bombing of Cambodia], which led to five times the bombing that was reported before, greater than all bombing in all theatres of WWII, which helped create the Khmer Rouge.

So to try to excuse their crimes from the broader picture may be sensible for Cambodians who are trying to find some internal justice and reconciliation, but for the broader picture, it's simply farcical.

So you think US leaders should be tried in connection with the DK regime?

Not just in the context of the DK regime - that's afterwards. I think supporting the KR after the DK, after they were kicked out - or supporting the Chinese invasion to punish Vietnam for the crime of driving them out - that's a crime in itself. But the much worse crime was by Kissinger-Nixon, and it's pretty hard to disagree with analysts like Ben Kiernan ... who released the documentation during the Clinton years.  Their conclusion was that this bombing, which really had genocidal intent - anything that flies against anything that moves - essentially changed the KR from a small group into a mass army of what they call enraged peasants bent on revenge. How could you omit that when you are discussing the Khmer Rouge atrocities?

Are you saying the KRT is a show trial?

These trials altogether have a very strange character - the most serious of all the tribunals since WWII was the Nuremburg trials, and that was a well-designed, carefully executed legal proceeding.

  An international trial that doesn't take into account Henry Kissinger ... thats just a farce.

But if you look at it closely, it was a farce. That was implicitly conceded to allow the Nazi war criminals to be tried. They were some of the worst monsters in history - and there is no doubt they were guilty. They had to define a notion of war crime, and it was post-facto - they were being tried for crimes after they committed them.
The trial had a very clear definition of war crime - it was crimes that you committed and that [the Allies] didn't.

So, for example, the bombing of urban centres was not considered a crime and the reason is very explicit: The Allies did more of it than the Germans.

The bombing of Japan frankly levelled the country and was not considered a crime because [the Allies] did it - in fact, German war criminals were able to exonerate themselves if their defence was able to demonstrate that their counterparts in the West did the same thing.

For example, a German submarine admiral who did commit war crimes by normal standards was freed from those charges when he brought into evidence testimony from an admiral in the British and American navy saying, ‘Yeah, that's what we did, too'. This was recognised, and chief prosecutor Jackson, he made a very eloquent speech to the tribunal where he said we were handing the defendants here a poisoned chalice, and if we sip from it, we must suffer the same punishment or else the trial is meaningless.

Well, we have sipped from that chalice numerous times since. The chief crime was the crime of aggression - the supreme international crime - and count the times the US and Britain have been guilty of outright aggression. Have they been tried?

It's a farce - victor's justice - and if you run through the rest of the trials, they pretty much have the same properties. In fact, I can't think of one that has been honest in this respect - the only ones I can think of that have been honest are the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions like in South Africa, El Salvador or Guatemala, where they brought out what happened and identified the perpetrators. And in many cases, it was done very honestly, and by the victims - they're the ones that testified.

Why are the KR on trial and not other leaders? Some Israeli generals, for example, have been accused of crimes against humanity.

An Israeli general would never be tried because they are backed by the US. These things reflect power systems. Very often, the people that are tried deserve to be tried and sentenced, but the structure of the trials has exonerated the powerful.

The position is extreme. The US is the most powerful country in the world, and it's also the most extreme in rejecting any form of judicial control. It is the only country that rejected a world court decision.... And that's why an Israeli general can't be tried. If an Israeli was brought to The Hague, the US might invoke what Europeans call The Netherlands Invasion Act. The US has legislation authorising the president to use force to rescue any American brought to The Hague.

So you're saying that this trial is not about justice?

There is an element that is about justice. You take Nuremburg again. There is no doubt that the accused were guilty - but is it justice? You take [executed Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von] Ribbentrop - one of the crimes for which he was sentenced was that he supported a pre-emptive strike against Norway. Well, at a time, Norway was a threat to Nazi Germany, of course, and he ordered a pre-emptive strike. But what did Colin Powell do? Iraq was no threat.

Some have accused you of writing favourably about the Khmer Rouge. Were you unfairly criticised?

It's ridiculous. In fact, there has been a massive critique of some of the things that Edward Herman and I wrote, and my view is that they were some of the most accurate things that were written in history.

Nobody has been able to find a missed comma, which is not surprising. Before we published the chapter, we had it reviewed by most of the leading specialists on the topic, who made some suggestions, but basically nothing.

Our main conclusion was: You have to tell the truth - don't lie about our crimes by denying them, and don't lie about their crimes by exaggerating them. In fact, what we actually did ... the main thesis is a comparison between Cambodia and East Timor. And it's a natural comparison: massive atrocities going on in the same part of the world - the same years. East Timor went on for another 25 years afterwards, and relative to population, they were about at the same scale. And what we found was that there was massive lying, but in opposite directions.

In the case of East Timor, it was ignored and denied. In the case of Cambodia, it was wild accusations without a particle of evidence. So what was the fundamental difference? In Indonesia, we were responsible, and we could have done something. But in the other case, an enemy was responsible.

A major Israeli delegation visited Cambodia recently. Should Cambodia be embracing trade with Israel, or do you back a boycott?

It's the same moral issue that arises all the time - even with the trials. Yes, Israel is doing terrible things. Why? Because the US is supporting it. It's like Indonesia and East Timor. As soon as Clinton told the Indonesians that it's over-they didn't have to bomb or boycott - they just told them it's over. They withdrew instantly. If the US stopped providing military, economic, ideological support, Israel couldn't do what it's doing. Well, why doesn't anyone talk about boycotting the US? Because it's too powerful.