Last month, I saw “Brother Number One,” a documentary by Annie Goldson that follows New Zealander Rob Hamill on the trail of his brother Kerry, who was captured and killed by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime in 1978. Kerry was just one of 1.5 million victims of the regime, nearly all of them Cambodians.
In the film, Rob travels to Cambodia to testify at the trial for crimes against humanity of Kang Kek Iew, better known as Comrade Duch, the director of the infamous S-21 prison where Kerry and thousands of others were tortured and killed. (Duch was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2010, extended to a life sentence this year.)
Who Does Justice Benefit?
Throughout the film, I thought back to my college history thesis, on the 1994 trial of Paul Touvier for crimes against humanity. Touvier was the first Frenchman to be tried on that charge, and his trial, a half century after the German occupation of France ended, brought the dark memories of collaboration and the dirty deeds of the Vichy regime to the surface of the public consciousness.
It’s the similar images of the two trials I found most striking. I was fixated on Duch’s teeth, rotting and askew. Touvier, 80-years-old and dying of prostate cancer during his trial, claimed- believably- to have forgotten much of what happened during the war. Duch and Touvier, finally facing justice, were no longer the young ideologues who energetically carried out their killings. Old age had blunted their evil and emphasized their humanity. The lives their incarceration was designed to take away had already been lived.
Does their imprisonment do anyone any good? Possibly. Victims were ignored for decades before seeing those who tortured and killed their loved ones enjoy the fruits of legitimate criminal justice systems: defense lawyers, impartial judges, no death penalty. Whether or not they find solace in the delayed imprisonment of these boogeymen is a personal matter. In “Brother Number One,” Hamill seems to benefit from confronting Duch and airing out the deep pain of losing two older brothers: not only Kerry, but another who committed suicide soon after the family learned of Kerry’s death.
The criminal justice system is ill designed for a national reckoning. It is too focused in its scope, too legalistic in how it defines justice, guilt, and punishment. I do not believe that Cambodia or France, or any country that has killed its citizens by the hundreds of thousands, will ever reach the idealized notion of justice the court aims to dispense. Not by sending old men and women to prison or the gallows. These boogeymen are only effective if they work in the dark, when many shield their eyes or participate in their crimes.
In my thesis, I argued:
France has never moved past the haunting memories of betrayal that the occupation and collaboration represent…Instead, in the years after the war, they were suppressed and denied. They have since resurfaced again and again, and often enough in the last forty years to make clear that they will never completely disappear from the French public consciousness.
A Different Route
I fear that Cambodia is headed toward the same fate if it continues to present the interminable (and corrupt, according to some critics) trials of Khmer Rouge leadership figures as an answer to mass murder. Nothing can be done to them that will balance the scale.
An extended, national howl of grief, accompanied by an admission of guilt by everyone who could have done something to stop the killing, on top of these trials, would throw salt in the wounds of the Khmer Rouge’s victims. But it would be an important step in the healing process. – Alex Davies
Alex Davies is communications coordinator for the Colin Powell Center. Read more about him and our other contributors here.