As many readers of the Centre for Policy Studies website will know, these were the words uttered by Mr Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, The Heart of Darkness. T. S. Eliot later used them as an epigraph to his original manuscript of The Wasteland. They are often seen as a foreboding of the evil that would engulf the twentieth century.
These words came back to me last week when I read an account of the opening day of the trial of three former leaders of the Khmer rouge: Ieng Sary, Khieu Sanphan and Nuon Chea. All three are now old men and are not expected to outlive their lengthy trial. Each one was a key player in the regime led by Pol Pot - one was vice-premier minister, another was a minister with special responsibility for commerce, whilst the third, Nuon Chea, was the regime’s chief ideologist - and each denies their direct responsibility for the deaths of over 800.000 people.
Summarised by their prosecutors, the Khmer rouge engaged in a “generalised and systematic attack against the civil population”, transforming Cambodia into “an immense slave camp”. In total, it is estimated that between 1.7 and 2.3 million people (out of a population of 8 Million) died after the Khmer rouge came to power in April 1975. No sooner had Pol Pot and the Cambodian Communist party taken over the capital Phnom Penh than millions of people were forcefully driven out of the cities on foot into the countryside without water and food. Hospitals were emptied; the old were left to fend for themselves; and families were split up. Many thousands simply died of starvation. All of this was part of agreed and pre-conceived plan to destroy those seen as enemies of the people and as an exploiting class of urban traders and state functionaries.
All three of the defendants are accused of an involvement in the expulsion of the urban population, in the setting up of forced labour and torture camps, in the “re-education” and elimination of internal enemies, in the application of measures against ethnic and religious minorities, and in implementing the policy of forced marriages. It is expected that charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity will later be made against them.
We might wonder why it has taken so long to bring these three men to trial and why, to date and at a cost of nearly £100 million, only one man, a former camp commander, has been found guilty and imprisoned for the role he played in one of the most brutal regimes of the twentieth century. Once again the United Nations has proved itself unfit to discharge the responsibilities placed upon it. Be that as it may, these proceedings in Phnom Penh should serve to remind us of two fundamental truths. First, that communism and communist regimes inevitably involve dictatorship and mass murder. Second, that certain individuals are capable of perpetrating acts upon their fellow human beings that are so evil as almost to defy our understanding. It is not only the facts of economics but also the facts of history that are conservative.
Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest work, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France, was recently published by Oxford University Press.