The Guardian view on pursuing crimes against humanity: a laborious yet urgent challenge

From Cambodia to Ukraine, achieving justice is difficult and daunting. Its champions are not giving up.

Sixteen years after it began – and half a century after Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge claimed perhaps 2 million lives – the UN-backed tribunal on its crimes has ended. It concluded its work on Thursday, having cost $337m and convicted just three men. Other cases were dropped, or blocked by Cambodian judges. Pol Pot, the genocide’s chief architect, died without facing justice. Some survivors feel the process fell short of already low expectations.

One day later, UN legal experts told the body’s human rights council that Russian soldiers had raped and tortured children in Ukraine, among other war crimes. Will victims there ever see justice? The gravest matters to the international community – crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide – are the hardest and slowest to pursue. Those who are most responsible are the least likely to face justice, for the same reason: their power. Legal processes are inevitably politicised and imperfect. Even when justice can be achieved, it cannot revive the dead, or erase their pain, or wipe away the trauma of survivors. Yet families want, and societies need, truth and accountability – albeit slow, flawed and partial. It can bring a kind of resolution, if not comfort. It helps to place a marker in history, re-establishing a line that humans must not cross.

The Cambodia tribunal opened in 1998, the year that the Rome statute was adopted as the basis for the international criminal court (ICC). A longstanding proposal had gained fresh impetus in the wake of genocide in Rwanda and Yugoslavia (though those were addressed through specially created tribunals). But it was weakened by the refusal of the US, China, Russia and others to support it, and almost all its initial investigations focused on Africa. A sense of despondency set in as the atrocities in Syria unfolded, Bashar al-Assad’s regime perpetrating atrocities with impunity.

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