The mirage of international justice

Alexander Hinton following years of field studies in Cambodia tells the story of the facade of justice or justice...

Alexander Hinton following years of field studies in Cambodia tells the story of the facade of justice or justice “imaginary,” as he refers to it in the book, The Justice Facade. The book tells the aspirations of the hybrid tribunal-Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) to transform years of repression, despotism and human rights violations into a prosperous, democratic and civilized Cambodia. Operating within a narrow framework, the tribunal negates the complexities of the events leading to Democratic Kampuchea (DK) and the lived experiences of Cambodians who have found varying coping mechanisms that are not mirrored by the tribunal because they are “primitive.” As a result, there is a disconnect between the Western Universalist approach to peace and progress with, understandings of peace and progress in the minds of Cambodians because, the justice “imaginary” does not take into account local nuances in a society deeply embedded in Buddhism. Hence, justice means, “reconnecting with lost souls,” [i]“reincarnation,”[ii] “incense burning,”[iii] ideas that are not mirrored or understood by the “one fits all” model of transitional justice.  

 Hinton therefore invites the reader to ponder whether this model of justice that does not cater to the ideals of local people is justice? A hybrid tribunal while misleading takes the Western Universalist approach therefore recreating this idea of superiority and racial hierarchy that views justice and civilization through a linear lens.[iv] Albeit, the complexities in Cambodia tell a different story: justice is not a linear progression. Not from A to B. The ECCC is a figment of the justice cascade that promotes Western ideologies as a universal standard for truth and reconciliation.[v] Indeed, Democratic Kampuchea was a dark era in the history of Cambodia, but enforcing a Western only narrative delegitimizes the rights of Cambodians and is in itself a form of Western imperialism.[vi] And, the fact that many survivors did not have the opportunity to be heard and, the intricacy of time and space, and global and local trajectories are not effectively covered by the “transitional justice imaginary.

Hinton offers a critique of the “transitional justice imaginary” for its inadequacies in recognizing alternative mechanisms as suitable forms of justice. As such, the perspective of a global justice narrative that informs transitional justice is a façade that uses reductionisms to create utopia and does not take into account “dynamic “ecosystems” filled with eddies, whirlpools, turbulence, counter current, still spots and, vortices.”[vii] Hinton wonders whether there is a point to transitional justice at all. 

 While Hinton takes a phenomenological approach, he fails to recognize other minority groups or religious sects in Cambodia. By so doing, he minimizes and neglects the experiences of smaller communities subsumed within the larger Buddhist community in Cambodia. 

Whilst the ECCC has been criticized on many levels including corruption and its limited mandate that only tackled crimes committed between April 17, 1975 and January 7, 1979, one has to wonder among other things, whether the ECCC bore any utility when many defendants were frail and unable to stand trial. If one of the aims of the ECCC was to punish perpetrators, and several years had passed since the atrocious acts and the defendants were elderly and some sick, did the transitional justice tribunal achieve this goal even by western  standards? While this book makes us critically conscious of the myriad ways through which justice can be achieved that do not fit mainstream understanding or interpretation of justice, we are left with a facade. An imaginary that fails in its aspirations into transforming Cambodia into liberal, rule of law state hence it is a facade. Despite the inadequacies of the transitional justice mechanism, the justice cascade narrative is rigid, linear and unwelcoming of difference. One thing is clear however, there is no universal justice. Advocating a particular narrative over others recreates a power dynamic that sets back the justice cascade. Justice should mirror local norms and ideals[viii] to be effective.







[i] p.7

[ii] p.83

 [iii] p.2

[iv] Mutua, Makau. 2001. “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights.”Harvard International Law Journal 42, (1):201-246

 [v] Sikkink,Kathryn and Kim,Hun Joon. 2013 “The Justice Cascade: The Origins and Effectiveness of Prosecutions of Human Rights Violations.” Annual Review of Law and Social Justice (9):269-85

[vi] Donnelly, Jack and Whelan, Daniel. 2018.  “International Human Rights.” 5th Ed. New York:  West View Press   

[vii] p.24

 [viii] Levitt,Peggy and Merry, Sally. 2009.  “Vernacularization on the ground: local uses of global women’s rights in Peru, China, India and the United States.” Blackwell Publishing, Global Networks (9) 4