How did the World Respond to the Cambodian Genocide?
How did the world respond?
There was little international effort to stop the killing in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge expelled all foreigners from the country immediately after taking power. It was nearly impossible for the outside world to gain firsthand knowledge of what was taking place in Cambodia, so news coverage was sparse. At the same time, the Vietnam War was coming to an end as the United States withdrew from South Vietnam. Communism and capitalism were both vying for political dominance around the world. Most governments were focused on their own affairs. There were networks of people who helped smuggle Cambodians out of the country and to safety, as well as many small international efforts to raise funds, but over all, very little attention, time, or money was devoted to the Cambodian Genocide. Yet again, genocide was underway as the world watched.
How did the United States respond? U.S. policy in the Vietnam War contributed to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia had attempted to stay neutral, yet both North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces used Cambodian territory to hide, supply, and train their troops. As this military activity increased in Cambodia, President Nixon authorized B-52 bomber raids on Cambodian sanctuaries. From 1969 to 1973 there were more than thirty-six thousand B-52 bombing missions against Cambodia. The resulting political, economic, and social instability, coupled with the pre-existent peasant unrest, contributed to the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power.
During the Ford administration (1973-1976) the United States maintained economic embargoes against the Communist countries of Vietnam and Cambodia. No significant measures were taken to curb the human rights abuses in Cambodia; the United States was more concerned about containing communism and winning the Cold War. In addition, other significant issues focused U.S. attention elsewhere. Finally, the United States had not yet signed the Genocide Convention and most did not feel obliged to contribute time, energy, or money to solving the problem in Cambodia.
Jimmy Carter became president in 1976 and inherited the “Cambodian Problem” just as it began to erupt into a massive blood bath. As the killing increased and it became more and more obvious that genocide was underway, President Carter’s administration struggled to balance its commitment to human rights with broader imperatives such as winning the Cold War. Disturbed by the number of tyrannical regimes the U.S. had supported in the name of anti-communism, Carter made an effort to give priority to human rights.
“I want our country to set a standard of morality. I feel very deeply that when people are deprived of basic human rights that the president of the United States ought to have a right to express displeasure and do something about it. I want our country to be the focal point for deep concern about human beings all over the world.”
Figure Snapshots of genocide victims taken before their execution at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh—the Khmer Rouge’s largest torture and killing center. Though he emphasized human rights and tried to make them a vehicle of his foreign policy, his efforts proved largely ineffective as Cold War initiatives and domestic priorities required most of his attention. In addition, the Vietnam War had left most American citizens and government officials averse to the idea of going back into Southeast Asia. In the end, very little was done to stop the genocide.
What happened in Cambodia after the genocide? The genocide ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in response to a border dispute. The Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer government and forced them into exile in the countryside. The Vietnamese established a temporary coalition government under which it was once again legal to own property and Buddhism was revived as the state religion. However, because of animosity toward Vietnam and Cold War allegiances, the United States and its allies continued to recognize the exiled Khmer Rouge government. The UN allowed it to maintain its seat in the General Assembly.
Civil unrest, hunger, and devastation persisted. The infrastructure of the country had been almost completely destroyed during Pol Pot’s reign. Nearly all intellectuals had been killed, countless women were widowed and children orphaned, and land mines still covered the countryside. These factors made Cambodia’s recovery from the genocide difficult. In addition, there was very little international commitment to helping Cambodia with this process.
In recent years the international community, with the United States taking much of the lead, has begun to assist Cambodia with its quest for justice and reconstruction. In 1991 a peace agreement was signed among opposing groups including the Khmer Rouge. Democratic elections, under the observation of a UN peacekeeping force, were arranged in 1993.
The former monarch was restored in what ended as disputed elections. The process of establishing international criminal trials to hold Khmer Rouge leaders accountable for genocide and crimes against humanity began in 1998. Leader Pol Pot died in 1998, before he could be tried. An agreement between the UN and Cambodia to establish an international genocide court was reached in March 2003, amidst much debate and disagreement. Some social and economic reconstruction programs have also begun, despite occasional political instability. Progress is being made in the country, though many large obstacles remain.