Long road to justice

The conviction and sentencing in Phnom Penh on Thursday of leaders of the Khmer Rouge to life terms for crimes against humanity will bring only a partial and belated comfort, however welcome, to the surviving victims of a regime which killed some 1.7 million people between 1975 and 1979. Justice delayed, they say, is justice denied.

But some justice is better than none, and the convictions are not only important to providing a measure of closure to the victims, but also in contributing to build an international, UN-based legal order, however yet imperfect, which can challenge war criminals and the culture of impunity that many of them bask in. The message from the international community to the Pol Pots, Assads, Milosevics, Bashirs, Taylors : "You will answer eventually for your actions." That the threat has a value and a real force is reflected in the current frantic diplomatic demarches from Israel, Kenya and Russia to prevent or derail references each of them fear to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Significantly the Cambodian decision comes as the US position on the ICC has begun to evolve away from outright hostility to welcome recognition it can play a role, notably in relation to Syria. US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power recently made an impassioned case for it. "Our grandchildren," she told the Security Council last month as it weighed a measure to refer the warring parties in Syria to the court, "will ask us years from now how we could have failed to bring justice to people living in hell on Earth."

The trial of Nuon Chea (88) and Khieu Samphan (83), the first in which senior Khmer Rouge leaders have been brought to account, began in 2011, more than three decades after the fall of the regime. Many of the surviving victims have since died – as have most of the perpetrators, Pol Pot included – but some 4,000 filed claims in the trial.

The hearings of the court, part-UN, part Cambodian, have cost some €200 million so far and yet have only heard the first part of the indictment – it has focused largely on the forced evacuation in April 1975 of Phnom Penh of its entire population and on the first of the killing fields with which the Khmer Rouge became synonymous. The two men were convicted of murder and extermination, among other crimes. Their second trial , which includes charges of genocide, may never happen because of their age and infirmity.

The trial in a specially constructed court has been beset by funding shortages, surviving only through international donations, and by allegations of corruption and political interference by the country's long-ruling prime minister/dictator Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge soldier and now 28 years in power. That it ever reached a verdict is remarkable.