On 23 November 2011, IFEX – a global network defending freedom of expression – launched the International Day to End Impunity. Another nail in the coffin of human rights violations, and not before time for Cambodia where Khmer Rouge leaders are on trial.
The International Day to End Impunity is a call to action to shed light on the issue of impunity and to demand justice for those who have been killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression. IFEX says that every day around the world journalists, musicians, artists, politicians, and free expression advocates are being silenced, often with no investigation or consequences for their persecutors.
The New York-based nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) publishes an Impunity Index as a key indicator of “levels of press freedom and free expression in nations worldwide.” According to CPJ’s 2011 Index, Iraq once again ranked the highest in terms of unsolved murders (92) in the past 10 years. But no region is left untouched: Somalia and the Philippines, which joined Iraq at the top of the index, showed either no improvement or worsening records.
Under international human rights law, impunity refers to the failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and, as such, it constitutes a denial of victims’ right to justice and redress. Impunity is especially common in countries that lack a tradition of the rule of law, suffer from endemic corruption or entrenched systems of patronage, where the judiciary is weak or members of the security forces are protected by immunity to prosecution.
Truth and reconciliation commissions are frequently established by nations emerging from periods marked by human rights violations – coups d’état, military dictatorships, civil wars – in order to cast light on the events of the past. While such mechanisms can help the prosecution of crimes and the punishment of the guilty, they have often been criticised for perpetuating impunity by enabling violators to seek protection under concurrently adopted amnesty laws.
The International Day to End Impunity begins at a time when Cambodia’s UN-backed war crimes court is trying three top Khmer Rouge leaders more than 30 years after the country’s brutal “Killing Fields” era (1975-79) when up to two million people were killed or starved to death. Three leaders are in court and a fourth has been found incapable of standing trial because of ill health.
Nuon Chea is viewed as the chief ideologue of the movement and has been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Known as Brother Number Two, he was second in command to Pol Pot, founder and leader of the Khmer Rouge. Nuon Chea defected in 1998 and was granted a pardon by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Khieu Samphan was the Khmer Rouge’s official head of state. He was the public face of the regime and defected at the same time as Nuon Chea. Khieu Samphan insists that, as head of state, he was never directly responsible for the deaths which happened under the regime.
Ieng Sary, known as Brother Number Three, served as the country’s foreign minister and was often the only point of contact between Cambodia’s rulers and the outside world. He is said to have been responsible for persuading many educated Cambodians who had fled the Khmer Rouge to return to help rebuild the country. Many were then tortured and executed as part of the purge of intellectuals.
Missing from the courtroom is Ieng Thirith, the only female leader to be charged by the court. A founding member of the Khmer Rouge, her sister was married to Pol Pot and she was married to Ieng Sary. She served as the regime’s social affairs minister. Prosecutors say she knew that tens of thousands of people were dying from starvation and disease on brutal collective farms but did nothing to stop the disaster.
Of course, all the defendants deny the charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The outcome of the trial may be a foregone conclusion, but the fact that the trial is taking place at all is a cause for celebration. The only question is, will justice or impunity reign?