The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Reconciliation: People’s Justice?

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on September 21, 2010

On July 26 2010, more than thirty years after the fall of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, 67-year old Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, became the first of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to be sentenced by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a tribunal jointly established by the UN and the Cambodian government to hold former Khmer Rouge to account. Duch was sentenced to 35 years, but this was effectively reduced to 19 years after being mitigated by time already served and compensation for a period of wrongful detainment.

However, now that sentence has been passed, the question inevitably arises as to whether it has vindicated or even eased the suffering of the survivors or countless victims’ families. In the moments following the court’s verdict, media reports noted that many victims and survivors were too upset to talk about the ostensibly inadequate punishment. Theary Seng lamented that Duch’s sentence equated to 11 hours served in prison for every life taken. With the recent indictment of a further four former Khmer Rouge cadre, the current focus of national reconciliation efforts is clearly on this tribunal. But is this form of justice likely to help foster reconciliation, and ultimately engender a sustainable peace in Cambodia?

The need for and prospect of reconciliation doesn’t seem to have been given enough attention in Cambodia. Legal (retributive) justice may be a critical first step in the healing of the Cambodian people. And it is difficult to argue against the need for a criminal tribunal as an integral component of conflict prevention by deterring future war criminals. At the same time, if Cambodia is to embark on a path towards reconciliation and sustainable peace, ordinary people will need to have inherently greater influence over what sort of grassroots processes are encouraged and if appropriate, supported by the international community to this end.

In Rwanda, gacaca courts were established to complement the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and to help its people witness some form of justice and come to terms with its genocidal past. In East Timor, the international community supported the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission. In Cambodia, reconciliation could mean providing an outlet for a public conversation between the victims and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge horror so that they can begin reconciling their experiences, start to understand the events, and learn to trust one another again. Although the term is highly contested, it is useful to consider Kreisner’s model of reconciliation, which involves four elements: truth; justice; regard (forgiveness on the part of victims); and security (expectations of peaceful co-existence). This implies an inclusive process, whereby not only the survivors, but also the perpetrators, are heard.

How this could fit within the current context of criminal proceedings remains to be seen. At the end of the day, it should be the people who inform what processes are best going to foster peace and reconciliation. It seems doubtful, however, whether the imprisonment of 1 or even 5 ex-Khmer Rouge leaders will have that effect.


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