Professor Warren Binford lectures on war crimes at the University of London

Professor Warren Binford criticized the decision of prosecutors not to charge the leader of Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng torture and execution center for enslaving children to help operate Tuol Sleng (also commonly referred to as “S-21”), where more than 12,000 men, women and children were brutally murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime. 

Prof. Binford made her comments at the University of London where she was presenting her research on the Khmer Rouge’s exploitation of children. The 2nd Biennial War Crimes Conference, held at the University of London’s Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, featured speakers who addressed justice for war crime victims, post-conflict tensions after cease-fires, and the process of reconciliation.

Prof. Binford’s lecture, “The Prosecution of ‘Duch’ at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia,” discussed the inadequacies of internationally recognized protections for children in the late 1970s and the flaws in the prosecution of “Duch,” the director of Tuol Sleng. Professor Binford previously published a related article in the Willamette Journal of International Law & Dispute Resolution.

Duch, a former math teacher, forced hundreds of children between the ages of 12 and 17 to serve as Tuol Sleng’s guards. The children were rounded up from poor families in the country. At his recent trial at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (“ECCC”), Duch testified children were used “because they were young, they were like clean pieces of paper that could be easily written or painted on.”

Prof. Binford acknowledged that the international community has made advances since the Khmer Rouge regime by developing a more comprehensive legal framework to protect child victims of war. But shortcomings remain, she warned.

The use of child soldiers during armed conflicts continues to be a widespread practice around the world. Children younger than 18 can still serve in national militaries under some circumstances. The decision not to prosecute Duch at the ECCC for enslaving children as guards suggests that some still fail to recognize the victimization of children in war is one of  the gravest war crimes that can be committed.

The crime is so horrific because so many of the children forced to become child soldiers never recover from the experience, Prof. Binford said.

“They’re so damaged so early in their development that they, in turn, can become perpetrators,” she said. “We want to believe in the innocence and resilience of childhood and so we hope that the rehabilitation centers that have been created for former child soldiers will allow them to recapture some innocence from their childhoods. The truth is that many of these children never recover from the memory of the brutalities they are forced to commit.”