The history of the cold war boiled down to one sentence would go as follows: The world’s two opposing superpowers – Capitalist United States and Communist USSR – contending for international power and influence through the engagement of militarily armament, military engagement, and proxy wars. The United States commenced with a ‘roll-back policy’ – an attempt to rejuvenate democracy in those countries that had become communist, but this policy was soon shifted to one of containment – the prevention of future countries from becoming communism. When one thinks of the Cold War the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the proxy wars fought in South America, Africa, and the Middle East immediately come to mind. Cambodia is not at the forefront of the discussion, yet it was victim of the geopolitical climate created by the Cold War environment.
Cambodia was declaredly neutral during the Cold War. In fact, to was part of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of states that chose not to align themselves with either the community or capitalist bloc. However, Cambodia became of tremendous interest to both sides of the conflict during the war in Vietnam. Cambodia shares its eastern border with Vietnam, and despite declaring neutrality, it permitted the Viet Cong to use the eastern portions of the country as access routes to the American military forces. When the US discovered this, they proceed to carpet bomb the eastern region of Cambodia, causing immense destruction. The turmoil and destruction of the US bombings in Cambodia gave rise to civil war from 1970 to 1975, in which the Khmer Rouge was eventually victorious. Rumors began to circulate about the atrocities being committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, so much so that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights launched an investigation into the Pol Pot regime in 1978. The resulting report, the Boudhiba Report, however, was never presented before the United Nations, largely due to the geopolitics surrounding Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979.
In January 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, overthrew Pol Pot’s regime, and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. What needs to be noted on this topic, and which is often forgotten in Cold War history, is that in Asia, China and the USSR were positioned against one another – Maoism vs. Leninism. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, they were backed by the USSR. This immediately incited fear into China who opening opposed Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia and called for the immediately withdraw of all Vietnamese troops. The United States, have just established economic relations with China and not wanting to hinder those relations, sided with China against the USSR backed Vietnamese government in Vietnam. At this time, the remaining Khmer Rouge member had fled to the forest and continued to receive support from the United States and China. Their support of rebel groups in Cambodia was so much that the Khmer Rouge remained the official representative of Cambodia at the United Nations until the after the Peace Agreement of 1991, despite the fact that the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was effectively running the country. In the midst of all this politics, the Boudhiba Report was given little attention. In fact, when its presentation was proposed before the United Nations General Assembly in February 1979, the USSR, the entire Soviet Bloc and the Non-Aligned Movement voted against its admission.
In the wake to the mass atrocities committed in Cambodia, no western government came to Cambodia’s aid, in spite of international commitments made to end such atrocities. “Never Again” was the slogan for the Nuremberg trial, the justification from bringing the Nazi perpetrators to justice, yet in the Cambodian context this pretense did not exist. Not until much later, almost 30 years later. To make matters worse, because to the geopolitical climate of the region, the United States and Great Britain sought to block NGO attempts to get emergency humanitarian aid into the country.
With the developing global conscience, the situation, the exploitation of a country due to geopolitical interest, is simply not acceptable. The Cambodians that died under Pol Pot’s regime were human too and deserve the same rights, protection, and international support as any other person in the world. The movement to end such atrocities requires the active engagement of all countries to create a standard that such crimes are simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Geopolitics should never be a consideration when it comes to human rights violations.