Monday, March 13, 2017

The Trump administration’s variation on the theme of nauseating American arrogance and the bombing of Cambodia

At Opinio Juris, Kevin Jon Heller brings us news that the Trump administration is “demand[ing] that Cambodia pay back $500 million it owes the US for providing support to Lon Nol’s unpopular regime.” As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of days ago:

“The debt started out as a US$274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government but has almost doubled over the years as Cambodia refused to enter into a re-payment program.

William Heidt, the US’s ambassador in Phnom Penh, said Cambodia’s failure to pay back the debt puts it in league with Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe. ‘To me, Cambodia does not look like a country that should be in arrears … buildings coming up all over the city, foreign investment coming in, government revenue is rapidly rising,’ Mr. Heidt was quoted as saying by the Cambodia Daily.”

Let’s recall some salient and indisputable facts, the first being Nixon’s emphatic instructions to Kissinger:

“I want everything that can fly to go in there and crack the hell out of them. There is no limitation on mileage and there is no limitation on budget. Is that clear?”

Then, Kissinger “to his military assistant, Gen. Alexander Haig: ‘He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves.’”

As Mark Selden notes in his chapter on “the American way of war” (beginning with WW II) in Bombing Civilians: a twentieth century history (2009): “Yet the bombing of Cambodia began not with Nixon in 1970 but on October 4, 1965. The records released in 2000 reveal that between October 4, 1965, to August 15 1973, the United States dropped far more ordinance on Cambodia than was previously known” 2,756,942 tons, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites.”

In the words of Professor Heller, “It is difficult to overstate the horrors the US inflicted on Cambodia from the air during the Vietnam War. [….] [The] bombing campaign, along with the US-backed coup against Prince Sihanouk in 1970, is widely credited with helping bring Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to power, and we know how that turned out — at least 1.7 million Cambodians murdered, an auto-genocide of epic proportions.”

Heller’s discriminate and measured conclusion:

“I have little doubt that Cambodia’s debt to the US is valid under international law. But that does not mean the US has the moral right to demand payment — much less to compare Cambodia to debt scofflaws like Zimbabwe. (How much does the US owe the UN right now? It was almost $3 billion at the end of 2015.) As James Pringle, Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh City during the Vietnam War, recently wrote in the Cambodia Daily, ‘Cambodia does not owe even a brass farthing to the U.S. for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.’”

When I first learned of this report my response was nowhere near as discriminate and measured as Heller’s, believing the bombing of Cambodia to be yet another exemplary instance of a “war crime” under international criminal law during the Vietnam War, that is, a “serious violation[ ] of customary or treaty rules belonging to the corpus of the international humanitarian law of armed conflict (IHL).” Moreover, as I said in a comment to his post, one is at a loss of words when it comes to expressing the depths of moral outrage this attempt at debt collection calls to mind. Insofar as hubris was once thought to result in nemesis (something akin to ‘instant karma’), one can only hope such “divine retribution” awaits those responsible for instigating this action.

Suggested Reading:

  • Branfman, Fred, ed. (with essays and drawings by Laotian villagers) Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2nd ed., 2013 (1972). 
  • Browning, Frank and Dorothy Forman, eds. The Wasted Nations: Report of the International Commission of Enquiry into United States War Crimes in Indochina, June 20-25, 1971. New York: Harper Colophon, 1972. 
  • Cassese, Antonio. International Criminal Law. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003. 
  • Cassese, Antonio, ed. The Oxford Companion to International Criminal Justice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 
  • Clapham, Andrew and Paola Gaeta, eds. The Oxford Handbook of International Law in Armed Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 
  • Coates, Karen J. (photos by Jerry Redfern) Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos. San Francisco, CA: ThingsAsianPress, 2013. 
  • Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. The Indochina Story: A Fully Documented Account. New York: Pantheon Books, 1970. 
  • Conboy, Kenneth (with James Morrison) Shadow War: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1995. 
  • Dinstein, Yoram. War, Aggression and Self-Defense. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 1992. 
  • Duffett, John, ed. Against The Crime of Silence: Proceedings of The Russell International War Crimes Tribunal. New York: O’Hare Books, New York, 1968. 
  • Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. New York: Viking, 2002. 
  • Falk, Richard A., ed. The Vietnam War and International Law, 4 Vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (sponsored by the American Society of International Law), 1968-1976. 
  • Falk, Richard A., Gabriel Kolko, and Robert Jay Lifton, eds. Crimes of War. New York: Random House, 1971. 
  • Fleck, Dieter, ed. The Handbook International Humanitarian Law. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2008. 
  • Hensel, Howard M., ed. The Law of Armed Conflict: Constraints on the Contemporary Use of Military Force. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005. 
  • Kiernan, Ben “The American Bombardment of Kampuchea, 1969-1973,” Vietnam Generation, 1, 1989 (Winter): 4-41. 
  • Kiernan, Ben. How Pol Pot Came to Power: A History of Communism in Kampuchea, 1930-1975. London: Verso, 1985. 
  • Kiernan, Ben. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 3rd ed., 2008. 
  • May, Larry. War Crimes and Just War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 
  • May, Larry. Aggression and Crimes against Peace. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • O’Connell, Mary Ellen. International Law and the Use of Force: Cases and Materials. New York: Foundation Press, 2005. 
  • Okimoto, Keiichiro. The Distinction and Relationship between Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello. Oxford, UK: Hart, 2011.
  • Russell, Bertrand. War Crimes in Vietnam. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967. 
  • Rust, William J. Eisenhower and Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. On Genocide. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1968.
  •  Shawcross, William. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Simon & Schuster, revised ed., 1987.
  • Smith, Charles Anthony. The Rise and Fall of War Crimes Trials: From Charles I to Bush II. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 
  • Tanaka, Yuki and Marilyn B. Young, eds. Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History. New York: The New Press, 2009. 
  • Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.


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