What does justice look like? Justice is a prominent theme in my first week of research: what is adequate justice? How can it be achieved? How is justice culturally sensitive and who has the authority to determine it?
I have been reading a series of articles about the current Khmer Rouge trials occurring thirty years after the group’s brutal regime of mass killings and a multitude of atrocities in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. In late July of 2010 the first conviction of a prominent Khmer Rouge figure sentenced Kaing Guek Eav (commonly known as Duch) to 35 years in prison for supervising the torture of murder of more than 14,000 people as the commandant of a central Khmer Rouge prison. The sentenced was reduced to 19 years due to time already served and for a period of illegal military detention.
When I read this I was filled with rage for what I perceived as injustice. I was angry that it had taken thirty years for the first major conviction. I cannot imagine surviving such a horrific regime only to sit with the pain unaddressed for so long. Many leaders have already died, including Pol Pot, and the rest have lived out the majority of their lives and are only facing possible retribution in old age. However, according to Mydans the conviction is progress in that it is the first time a senior government official was held responsible for human rights violations in Cambodia’s modern history. It was also the first time such a trial met international standards. Many survivors were understandably upset about the lenient verdict. Many that testified felt that the outcome victimized them for second time and felt “like a slap in the face” (Mydans: 2). Not only is jail luxurious compared to the gruesome treatment of the survivors under the regime, but also the sentence may allow Duch to walk free one day, an excruciating thought for many Cambodians.
The second article from the sixteenth of September centers on the second case against the four top surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. The defendants, now frail with old age, deny all guilt and will be tried together. It is unbelievable to me that these individuals can face these charges, time providing numerical statistics of the destruction and suffering caused by the regime they orchestrated, and still deny that they did anything wrong. It is disturbing that Duch only displayed limited remorse but more so that the four more prominent surviving Khmer Rouge leaders express no remorse whatsoever. The upcoming trial will probably be more complex than the first, lacking detailed records and sullied by the current Cambodian government leaders, many of which served as low-level Khmer rouge officials, including the current Prime Minister. Yes, you read that correctly: the current Cambodian prime minister actually participated in the genocide and murder of thousands of his countrymen! What can justice look like under these circumstances? How can such massive scale of human rights violations possibly be rectified? This is a theme I hope to explore during my research with Citizenship and Human rights. Although I find these articles frustrating and a demoralizing perception of humanity, I hope to find possible solutions and attain enough strategic knowledge to improve such ‘justice’ systems.
Human Rights Watch attempts to initiate some form of justice in the Congo, where mineral wealth has created violent conflict, generating multitudes of internally displaced people and human rights violations against civilians inadvertently in the middle of the fighting. On their website Human Rights Watch provides not only a thorough research paper about the plight of internally displaced people in the Congo, but also a video documenting their experience in the country. A prominent travesty in the Congo is the systematic rape of women used as a tool by both the government troops and rebel militias. Human Rights Watch (HRW) argues that the first step towards justice is detailed, in-the-field research to document exactly what happened and who was involved. This practice gives the victims a voice and legitimizes their suffering. Human Rights Watch additionally uses the information to shame influential individuals to act. The video made me realize the type of power non-governmental organizations can posses and how it can be utilized. Human Rights Watch has significant soft power, meaning an intellectual and moral influence rather then control demanded through military force. Their reputation for reliable research and as a prominent, earnest organization in the fight against human rights violations provides Human Rights Watch with moral authority it can use to influence the action of political groups. As explained in the video no country, group or individual, even rebel militia groups, wants to be labeled as a major perpetrator of human rights violations. HRW was able to persuade the president of the Congo to publically denounce rape as an unacceptable atrocity against women. Although this public speech will not end all rape, the most powerful and successful man in the nation condemning the act does shift the perception of the rape for government troops, specifically in its legitimacy as a military right and its relation to masculinity. HRW proves the importance of solid research as the first step for smart activism that can initiate change in a peaceful way. Overall this initial research has taught me the importance of ideology and public perception in the process of justice. A second theme is the necessity of legitimizing and recognizing the suffering of victims for individual healing and national change.