Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime is responsible for killing between 1.7 to 3 million people; but did they commit genocide?
At first glance, that question might seem a bit rhetorical or perhaps even offensive; what other crime, or indeed word, can capture the killing of 20% of Cambodia's population? Yet, for all of its undeniable brutality, the killings by the Khmer Rouge might not legally be considered genocide.
In popular discourse, genocide is an emotional, and sometimes politically charged word that has become synonymous with the 'ultimate evil,' the 'crime of crimes.' Under this understanding of genocide, there is no doubt that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide.
Yet, genocide has a specific legal meaning. It is the intent to destroy in whole or in part; members of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group. In the case of Cambodia, with a few noted exceptions, victims were persecuted and singled out on the basis of their political viewpoints (or perceived viewpoints) and socio-economic standing. Groups that are not mentioned under the Genocide Convention. Under a strict legal interpretation of genocide, the Khmer Rouge is certainly responsible for mass crimes against humanity; but might not be guilty of genocide.
With members of the Khmer Rouge being tried for crimes during the regime; questions of the legal definition of genocide and its relevance to Cambodia are not just the subject of academic and legal debates; but have real world consequences with far reaching implications for how genocide is defined and understood; both in legal and popular terms.
The Cambodia case outlines the inherent limitations in the genocide convention and its narrow definition of 'group'; and there is strong argument to be made that the definition should be expanded upon to include (but not limited too) political, social, economic and sexual groups as well. Indeed, political groups were originally under consideration to be a protected group; but under protest from the Soviet Union, it was removed, leaving the protected groups to the ones mentioned above.
But changing the genocide convention and expanding upon it does not seem to be a rather likely option. Perhaps there needs to be a new understanding of genocide, crimes against humanity and our response to such crimes. Instead of having genocide be equated solely with the 'ultimate evil'; perhaps we should understand genocide as being a specific type of 'evil'. And that mass crimes against humanity, such as Stalin's Gulag System or Pol Pot's "Killing Fields" are just as worthy of our outrage and intervention as genocide.