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Genocide expert talks Pinochet and Pol Pot

By Janey Lewis

History Professor Ben Kiernan, director of the Cambodian Genocide Project, supports the ruling against Pinochet.

On Wed., Nov. 25, Britain's high court ruled that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet should not receive diplomatic immunity on genocide charges. In light of the ensuing international controversy, the Herald sat down with History Professor Ben Kiernan, head of the federal Cambodia Genocide Program (CGP), to discuss the Pinochet case and current international human rights law.

After Pinochet arrived at a London hospital to be treated for back problems, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon issued a request for his arrest. Garzon condemned Pinochet for the death and "disappearance" of over 3,000 people from 1973 to 1990. The British court ruled that Pinochet's status as a former head of state did not guarantee him immunity from the Spanish court's charges. Kiernan praised the court for addressing the charges brought against Pinochet. "The Pinochet case is significant for the development of human rights laws," he said. He hopes Pinochet's case will serve as a precedent to encourage other nations to bring violators of human rights law to justice.

Pinochet's case is also significant because it marks the end of what Kiernan termed the "non-enforcement of international law until the 1990s." Kiernan observed that until recently, the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide--the most forceful treaty condemning human rights atrocities--properly enforced. The treaty defines genocide as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such." Kiernan said the United Nations has failed to fulfill its obligation to bring human rights violators to justice in nations such as Cambodia.

Kiernan has been researching genocide in Cambodia and other regions of the world for over 20 years. In Cambodia, some scholars estimate that atrocities committed by Pol Pot's murderous Khmer Rouge regime resulted in the massacre of at least 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979, annihilating roughly 25 percent of the country's population.

Kiernan regards his work as a worthwhile endeavor. "It's depressing work, but it's important to study it, to learn how it happens and also to prevent [genocide]," he said.

Kiernan identified several traits commonly observed in individuals who commit crimes against humanity. These often include obsession with race, ideological or religious extremism, conceptions of the purity of a race or an ideology, and a desire for territorial expansion or conquest. Often, genocide stems from historical grievances, which the perpetrators use to justify genocide or "ethnic cleansing," according to Kiernan.

"It's important to understand the historic grievances that give rise to genocidal impulses," Kiernan said. Teaching students about the nature and causes of genocide furthers one of the CGP's central goals: to develop a greater awareness and understanding of the issue and to seek justice against the perpetrators after the crimes have been committed. "There needs to be more attention to detecting future genocide and preventing it," Kiernan stated. He added, "Detection is one thing and prevention is another."

According to Kiernan, the mutilation and mass slaughter of 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis by radical Hutus in Rwanda could have been prevented, but the Rwandan government did not act properly to diffuse the potential for ethnic conflict. "In Rwanda, the government had the information, but not the will, to prevent genocide," he said.

Slightly different than the purely ethnically-based genocide in Rwanda, the Cambodian killings resulted from a number of political and ideological issues, as well as racial factors. In both cases, as in all instances of genocide, Kiernan feels the U.N. has a responsibility to assert its authority and to bring the perpetrators to justice if they cannot prevent the crimes in the first place. "The U.N. must have a prominent role in understanding and preventing genocide," Kiernan said.

When asked if there have been certain hot spots for genocide around the world, Kiernan said, "In the 20th century, [genocide] has happened in most areas of the world. It's happened very quickly, even when warning has been given. It hasn't been restricted to certain areas."

Kiernan and his CGP staff hope that the fates of figures such as Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary--men who were numbers two and three, respectively, under Pol Pot and are still alive--will be held accountable for their misdeeds just as Pinochet currently is. A commission of experts will make a recommendation to the U.N. General Assembly in January on whether and how these cases should be tried.

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