Empiricizing Transitional Justice
The Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley released this month “a population-based survey on attitudes about social reconciliation and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia” entitled So We Will Never Forget. Of the several surveys of the Cambodian public on accountability for the Khmer Rouge that have been completed in the past decade (including one by yours truly), this is the most scientifically planned and executed, with rigorous methodology and a wide sampling of the Cambodian population.
There’s much of interest in this report for those participating in accountability efforts. First, the report underscores the need for a serious public education effort around the tribunal. Of the respondents who did not live under the Khmer Rouge regime, 81% described their knowledge of that period as poor or very poor. Given that 68% of Cambodia’s population has been born since the Khmer Rouge left power, that’s a very concerning statistic. Moreover, 39% of those surveyed had no knowledge of the Extraordinary Chambers and 46% had only limited knowledge. The court and non-governmental organizations have a great deal of headway to make in educating the Cambodian public about the ECCC and the Khmer Rouge era.
Second, the survey results question the appropriateness of trials as the sole accountability mechanism in Cambodia. While 86% of those surveyed believed that it was necessary to establish the truth about what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime, 45% of respondents said they didn’t know which mechanisms would be appropriate to do so, and only 14% recommended trials. On the other hand, 9 out of 10 respondents believed it important to hold accountable those responsible for the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime, and almost 50% said that perpetrators should be put on trial. This disparity may reflect the difficulty of designing survey questions, particularly in cross-cultural contexts, that are not leading. On the other hand, it may illustrate a perceived distinction between truth and accountability, in which case it would have been useful to know which goal the respondents valued more given limited resources. Were truth the priority, a truth commission or other mechanism that can paint a broader picture of history might have been a better choice than trials.
Finally, the report queries the priorities of the international community and the Cambodian government in allocating so many resources (currently an estimated $135.4 million through the end of 2010) to the Extraordinary Chambers rather than to social reconstruction. Only 1% of those surveyed listed justice as a priority while 83% listed jobs as a priority. Interestingly, the importance of justice grew as survey respondents were focused on the ECCC. Only 76% of Cambodians said it was more important to focus on problems faced in their daily lives than to address the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, and just 53% would rather spend the money on something other than the ECCC. In any case, that’s still a majority of respondents who think the funding for the Extraordinary Chambers would have been better spent elsewhere.
Despite its possible flaws, this quantitative study is of great value in assessing and directing transitional justice mechanisms in Cambodia. If transitional justice is to be responsive to the needs of local populations, rather than a top-down mandate from the international community, such studies should be undertaken as a matter of course, preferably before selecting and designing accountability mechanisms and allocating limited resources.
Cross-posted on IntLawGrrls.