ECCC prosecutor pursues leaders of the Khmer Rouge for crimes committed 40 years ago
-By Anne Bergman
Can we achieve justice for victims and survivors of genocidal crimes committed decades ago? Is it ever too late to prosecute the perpetrators? And, can the pursuit of justice deter future acts of genocide?
These are challenges central to the work of Nicholas Koumjian, who for the past two years has served as the international co-prosecutor for the Cambodia Tribunal. Koumjian was appointed by the United Nations to prosecute the senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge for serious crimes committed during their regime that resulted in the deaths of 1.7 million people from 1975-1979.
At a noontime discussion co- hosted by USC Gould and the USC Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies (IAS) on Sept. 3 at the Ground Zero cafe, Koumjian answered questions posed by Professor Hannah Garry, who directs the USC Gould International Human Rights Clinic and has served as a Senior Legal Adviser to the Cambodia Tribunal.
Garry queried Koumjian about his work and background, teasing out issues that resonated with the audience, who included members of the local Armenian community, 11th graders from the Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School, as well as Gould students interested in pursuing a career in human rights law.
“Human rights violations sadly seem to always be in the news,” said Salpi Ghazarian IAS director as she introduced Koumjian and Garry to the capacity crowd. “These two (Koumjian and Garry) are in the business of giving voice to the voiceless and bringing about lasting change.”
Garry began the discussion by asking Koumjian to explain why the tribunal is prosecuting perpetrators – now in their 80s — who committed crimes that are at least four decades in the past.
“These trials are about more than putting old men in prison,” Koumjian replied. “These trials are about recognizing what happened to the entire country of Cambodia.”
In addition to the deaths of nearly two million Cambodians (20 percent of the population), 3 million people were forced to leave Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge, and tens of thousands were raped and faced religious persecution by the regime.
“I don’t think there’s a time that would be too late” to try these crimes), said Koumjian, whose career as a human rights attorney spans the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia, the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Serious Crimes Unit in East Timor. “These trials recognize the harm that was done and do justice to the people who were harmed,” he added. “We can’t let people get away with these crimes.”
Koumjian spent the first part of his career as a Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney. He took a leave of absence from the D.A.’s office to volunteer his services in international human rights with the American Bar Association, spending time in Armenia and other countries. His pro bono work eventually led him to a full-fledged career in international criminal justice.
When it comes to prosecuting the crimes in Cambodia, the biggest challenge isn’t proving that the crimes were committed, but determining whether they legally constitute genocide as commonly understood, said Garry.
Garry also asked Koumjian whether the international criminal courts can “truly achieve justice? How do you assess how we in the human rights community are really doing?”
For Koumjian it comes down to serving the victims. “These trials aren’t going to bring back those who were killed,” he said. “But I’ve had victims say that their suffering would have been greater if there had been no moral recognition of what happened to them.”
And the process of prosecuting the perpetrators does have a deterrent effect, according to Koumjian. “We prosecute murder and rape in Los Angeles. Does that stop those crimes completely? No, but it would be worse if the perpetrators knew they would not be held accountable.”
As for stopping crimes of genocide as they are occurring, Koumjian said that power lies within the international community. “We must stand as one. We can all have an effect by condemning genocide when it happens and calling on our government to take action to prevent it.”
View a video of the full discussion: https://goo.gl/z7T19h–
– photo by Raffix Photography