To attempt to describe the state of human rights in Cambodia is to rediscover the inherent limitations of moral relativity.
When we undertook to write such a report, we focused on conditions under the current Cambodian regime, the Vietnamese-sponsored and -backed People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). It is a regime that engages in sustained, ruthless and routine torture of those suspected of opposition to it.
The PRK is not only effectively ruled by a foreign invader -- Vietnam -- but also participates with that invader in jailing its own citizens suspected of political crimes without first trying them, in attempting to beat confessions out of them and in then holding them for indeterminate periods without the slightest semblance of legal process.
The dismal human rights record of the PRK is nonetheless inestimably better than that of its predecessor, the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge. In the three years (1975-78) that the Khmer Rouge were in power, they barbarously murdered more than a million of their 7 million countrymen. The current PRK regime does not engage in genocide; it merely violates well-established principles of human rights on a continuing basis.
How to describe current abuses without seeming to condone past ones -- worse past ones -- was one of the difficulties we confronted. How to convince people that the Cambodian people deserve better than the mere absence of genocide remains a still more difficult problem.
Some, of course, cannot be persuaded. It was no surprise, after all, that Vietnamese radio immediately denounced our conclusions as "groundless, ill-meaning,
TAKE 241050 PAGE 00002 TIME 12:09 DATE 08-23-85 impudent allegations." It was a bit more surprising, but probably should not have been, that we were vigorously denounced by three members of the National Lawyers Guild in a letter to The New York Times. A previous Times article had described the substance of our interviews with Cambodians who had recently fled the country and were then living on the Thai-Cambodian border. The article had conveyed our conclusion that not only was torture practiced widely on behalf of the PRK by its officials but that the Vietnamese "experts" who closely supervise their work participated actively in these brutal acts. The Guild members found our conclusions "shocking," and asserted that they had reached "far different conclusions" following their recent visit to Cambodia.
Well, of course. As the Guild's newsletter later reported, the purpose of the Guild delegation's trip, which also included a visit to Vietnam, was "to continue the Guild's history of solidarity and support for the struggle of the people of Vietnam."
Criticism later voiced by some other Cambodia- watchers presented a different view: that the PRK, having replaced the bestial regime of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, should not be seriously faulted for its lesser crimes of torturing its political enemies.
This view was articulated by a prominent Australian academic, Michael Vickery, who wrote and widely circulated critiques of a preliminary report of our investigation published shortly after our return from the Thai-Cambodian border. After characterizing our preliminary report as "political propaganda," Vickery later acknowledged that he did "not doubt that large numbers of suspected opponents of the current regime had been arrested without formal charges and held without trial," or that "some" of them had been subjected to "harsh treatment."
But, he asserted, "all questions of human rights and legality are relative. . . . In this report, the PRK is being judged against an ideal standard which does not prevail in any of its neighbors and was not observed by any previous Cambodian regime."
This assertion deserves attention. It gives voice to one of the most important reasons why, before our own undertaking on behalf of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, no human rights organization had undertaken any on-site investigation of human rights abuses in Cambodia. Having first failed to respond adequately to the unprecedented reign of terror unleashed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, the professional human rights community then failed to take on the (almost necessarily) lesser depredations of the current regime.
To be sure, many factors combined to produce the silence: the inaccessibility of Cambodia to human rights investigators; the political orientation of some of those investigators; the tenuous connection between the victims of current abuses and communities that have a strong political voice, and th moral ambiguities of the current guerrilla war in Cambodia -- the context in which current abuses occur -- which involves a nationalist struggle against an occupying force in which one of the guerrilla factions comprises the remnants of the savage Pol Pot regime.
But cutting across all of these reasons is the view that those Cambodians who have survived a holocaust cannot expect their human rights to be measured by the same standard that governs the rest of the world. This sentiment must be counted among the many tragic legacies of the Pol Pot years. Surely Cambodians should not be punished again for their exceptional suffering.