Facing justice

James Jennings

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Bou Meng giving testimony before the ECCC on 1 July 2009. Photo: WikiCommons

The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia
Alexander Laban Hinton
Oxford University Press: 2018
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Alexander Hinton has spent thirty years visiting Cambodia; he knows the country and its language better than most. The focus of his latest book is the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the hybrid Cambodian-United Nations tribunal that opened its doors in 2006 to try the Khmer Rouge chieftains whose three years of rule at the end of the 1970s left almost 2 million people dead. The Justice Facade follows on from Man or Monster?, Hinton’s study of Duch — the chief torturer at the S-21 prison, also known as Tuol Sleng — and his trial.

At the outset, the author outlines the history of transitional justice, which established itself on the international scene in the 1970s and ’80s and gave birth to several international ad hoc tribunals and the later entry into force of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. He finds in this history a powerful thread of idealism, allied with an assumption that liberal capitalist democracy is the state of being to which dysfunctional states should aspire. Transitional justice will help them get there.

What is “transitional justice” and why does it matter? Does it serve a useful purpose or is it a monumental waste of time and money? Does it really bring reconciliation and renewal to a battered country, or merely serve the democracy agendas of Western liberals? These are questions that Hinton explores. He offers his own definition of transitional justice: “an assemblage of discourses, institutions, capital flows, technologies, practices, and people devoted to providing redress for mass human rights violations and enabling a transformation of a society from [a] violent past to a better future”. It is not coincidental that the human beings come at the bottom of the list. For Hinton, this legalistic mode of reckoning with the past, delivered from afar by big institutions, lacks the human touch, just as the staff who administer them see only “a surface facade that reflects their idealized imaginaries of transitional justice, human rights, globalization, and democratization”.

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