Of First-Class Flights and Genocidal Ennui

Hinton and Eltringham Speak of Outreach Farce in Cambodia and Rwandan Legal Hell in War Crimes Trials at IAGS

ARLINGTON, Va. (A.W.)—On June 9, Dr. Alex Hinton, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Rutgers University and the director of the Rutgers Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, and Dr. Nigel Eltringham, anthropology lecturer at the University of Sussex, spoke at the International Genocide Scholars Association’s (IAGS) Biennial Conference on a panel themed, “International Justice: New Contexts, Recurring Challenges.”

Hinton spoke on “Truth, Memory, and Justice After the Cambodian Genocide: Reflections on Leng Sary’s Pretrial Hearing at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.” Until the late 1990’s, he said, “there was a Khmer Rouge defection program and what people in Cambodia don’t talk about is that everyone [in the political sphere and international community] was waiting for them [former Khmer Rouge officials] to integrate into a market economy, so tribunal hearings didn’t really start until 2008.”

From 1975-79, he explained, Cambodia endured the loss of at least 1.7 million of its 8 million inhabitants—almost a quarter of its population—from outright execution, disease, starvation, and overwork. The discourses about the period, he explained, “have changed significantly over the past 25 years, as the Cambodian government shifted from socialism to a market economy, and as its policy toward a continuing Khmer Rouge insurgency changed from one of hostility toward one of accommodation, reconciliation, assimilation, and now, international justice.”

“I focused on the pre-trial hearing of Leng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge minister of foreign affairs who was tried in absentia in 1979 and pardoned in 1996 before being arrested by the Khmer Rouge tribunal in 2007,” he said. “The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) held the hearings in a military police building outside the capital. They covered from 1975-79 and those figures most responsible. In all decisions, at least one international judge had to agree with the Cambodian rulings to move forward. It’s a hybrid court.”

Yet, there were wide shortcomings, he said. “It’s very hard to get people from the countryside to the court. Most have no idea a trial is even taking place. But there are some NGOs that transport those to the court.”

Speaking of the trial proceedings, he said that “a big question is, ‘What type of law do you use?’ Because actively you’re in a ‘Special Cambodian Court.’ So, of course, the Defense teams are always using this as a tactic, along with the fact that the first trial in 1979 was largely a show-trial, but was one of the first genocide tribunals and therefore brings up constantly the issue of double-jeopardy.”

“The prosecution always wants to get as many different charges, like murder and genocide, into the trial. But it leads to constant delays,” he explained. Most importantly, “courts don’t care much about outreach” to gather potential witnesses and genocide survivors to testify in court, Hinton said, “and this bothers me as an anthropologist.”

“There was only one person, going once a month, for all of Cambodia, to do outreach for the tribunal. So much money goes for everyone to fly first-class but somehow there’s no money for outreach. The outreach worker told me, ‘You know, I’d really just like a microphone to talk to people in the villages.”

He continued, “The tendency on the local level is for people to use Buddhism as a way of healing. In many villages, there are Khmer Rouge officials living side-by-side with natives that say, ‘As a Buddhist I’ve let go of my anger. I would like to kill this person that killed my family, but I’d be arrested.’”

Hinton warned of the dangers to historical memory that come with Cambodia’s booming legitimate economic and political alliances with the U.S. and China. “Up until 1993, the killing fields were all the children grew up with, but now that’s changed in the education system.”

Economically, however, “Cambodia still gets the label of a ‘failed state.’ But actually its economy did quite well in the 1980’s. Because of the temporal legal restrictions on the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) regime in the 1980’s and 90’s, when everyone like China was propping up the government, these put up barriers in the UN Security Council and could only trial the Pol Pot period,” he explained, excluding any acts of murder or genocide perpetrated before or after this period.

Eltringham spoke next on the topic of “Doing Justice to the Mundane: The Social Worlds of International Tribunals, Present, and Past.” With the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in May 1993 and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in November 1994, the interrupted project of international criminal justice that had begun with the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal (“Nuremberg Trials,” 1945-46) and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (“Tokyo Trials,” 1946-48) was re-established, he said.

“Existing commentary on the ICTY and ICTR tends to either ethnify the two contemporary tribunals or consider technical aspects in isolation,” he explained. “Ethnographic research at the ICTR, however, reveals that such institutions are sites of intense social and cultural negotiation… This concern for the social dynamics of the tribunal is absent from the contemporary literature.”

Eltringham continued, “What needs to be reflected is the ambient social world of pathos, boredom, and humor of those that attended these trials. At an international tribunal, there is this mundane friction alongside practical requirements that are sometimes missed: differences in descriptions, techniques by witnesses, all alongside simultaneous translations [into English and French] that are also of concern in jurisprudence.”

“As one judge told me, ‘Academics don’t have a clue. They’ve never set foot in a courtroom. It’s a compelling, toxic place.’ It’s the mundane, quotidian life in these courtrooms I’m trying to convey. Even in its time, the Nuremberg Trial was described as ‘A Citadel of Boredom.’”

He cited a British ICTR judge, who said, “Our proceedings can be very boring. We hear the same information many times but as a judge we can’t switch off. But normal people would absolutely die.”

Eltringham recounted the response he received from a British ICTR attorney, who said, “If I were in a court in England, it might take me 15 minutes to deliver my opening statement; here it takes at least an hour. There’s this constant need to speak slowly, a complete lack of nuance in speech, in which all subtleties are lost.”

One judge said of the courts’ semantic problems that “today we have French and English real-time transcripts and there are differences in the testimony and something needs to be done about it. Especially when witnesses are bilingual and can be counterintuitive towards their testimony depending on the language of the judge.”

He elaborated, “Judges will often say to witnesses [to avoid delays and testimony descrepencies], ‘Live in French, don’t answer when the question is asked in English.’ However, Anglophile judges will often move onto the next question while the question is still being translated in French. And all of this impedes being able to aptly read a witness’ demeanor and facial expressions to help determine guilt.”

Eltringham explained, “If the witness is asked an embarrassing question, they can use the simultaneous translation as a way to stall and change demeanor.”

“It seems that in an environment in which we are supposed to stress the humanity of the victims,” he said, “that we should acknowledge the stresses and strain of those humans burdened with doing these works.”

Interestingly, he said, “a lightness and wittiness is brought to the courts by the judges, which may shock some people in a genocide trial, but it helps diffuse tension, such as in the ICTR trial that went on for years.”

During the Q&A, Hinton spoke of the negligence of the international community. While conducting his research in Cambodia, he said, “I was so surprised that when I asked the local NGOs, ‘Do you do local testing and anthropology?’ that ‘local’ to them meant local officials and elites in the capital, no one in the villages.”

Andy Turpin

Andy Turpin

Andy Turpin has been the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly since 2006. He was raised in Palma City, Fla. His family is of Italian, Welsh and Armenized-Romani stock. He graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., with degrees in history and journalism. Following graduation, he went to Armenia as an English as a Second Language (ESL) U.S. Peace Corp volunteer. He received his CELTA-ESL degree from Cambridge University in 2006.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.