Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Balancing truth, justice and reconciliation

Balancing truth, justice and reconciliation

Balancing truth, justice and reconciliation

R econcile (rek'en sil'): "to settle or resolve, as in a dispute... to re-establish friendship between... to

bring oneself to accept...." Reconciliation reflects the goodwill of conflicting parties to move beyond the

barriers that divide - if not towards partnership, then at least towards tolerance or cooperation.

Pardon (par'dn): "to release from punishment... to absolve... to exempt from the penalties of an offense or

crime...." To pardon frees the offender from the consequences of the offense, no matter how heinous the crime.

Thus, to pardon is also to forgive and to forgive is to renounce anger.

THE pardoning of Ieng Sary

represents yet another odd chapter in the political evolution of Cambodia.

It is as if cartoon frames have replaced whole passages of historical truth - where tragedy is reduced to comedy

and fiction becomes fact. In this mythological tale, politicians climb over each other in a mad-hatter race to

stake their claims on the gem mines and forests of Pailin. This, they insist, represents the one true path to peace

and reconciliation.

For his crimes against humanity, Ieng Sary is rewarded with a pardon and his two military commanders get diplomatic

passports. The pardon itself will not diminish the pain and suffering of his victims. Ieng Sary will not slide

casually into history as a former errant architect of the Cambodian genocide, now turned peacemaker.

Like Pol Pot from whom he has opportunistically split, Ieng Sary will be judged for the irrefutable acts of brutality

committed by a regime that each has staunchly pursued, represented, and defended for all of their lives. To reconcile

with such men is to tempt the fate of a nation that has yet to get up off its knees.

Can reconciliation be achieved if justice is denied? Is forgiveness incompatible with justice? These are not idle

concerns - nor are the moral and political questions that emerge from them unique to Cambodia.

Fifty years have passed since Adolf Hitler took his own life in a Berlin bunker and thereby denied the Nuremberg

War Crimes Tribunal its star defendant. Since there was no shortage of willing participants in his final solution,

the Tribunal turned its attention to Hitler's high profile deputies, lesser known henchmen, and their collaborators.

The Nuremberg trials took one year, and once concluded, allied states were free to proceed with the post-war reconstruction

of Germany. But some crimes are just too vast in scope to ever forgive, even when justice is served. So it was

also convenient that Germany stood divided by the Cold War through the birth of two generations before it was reunited.

And yet evidence of collusion with Nazi Germany continues to surface to this very day as another nation comes face

to face with its own dark secrets. We know that the Swiss banking system is not the inviolate and neutral sanctuary

we have long believed it to be. For one thing, it has held millions, if not billions, of dollars belonging to the

living heirs of Holocaust victims for the past 50 years.

At least to the survivors of ethnic cleansing and genocide in former Yugoslavia, one factor stands out as an

insurmountable barrier to forgiveness and reconciliation: to date, none of the signatories to the Dayton peace

accords have handed over those most responsible for these crimes to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The

Hague. This is because all roads lead straight to them.

In Bosnia, former combatants - once friends and neighbors - cannot begin to forgive the crimes each committed against

the other as long as those who masterminded the destruction of their homes and the deaths of their loved ones are

free to hide, or worse still, to govern.

If, as many Bosnians would now argue, partition was the alternative to war before it began five years ago, this

is even more true now that elections have reinforced and legitimized the politicians who agreed only reluctantly

to stop the killing in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

One has only to stand upon the heights of Mount Igman above Sarajevo to understand why few dare cross the cease-fire

boundary between the ethnic entities of a precariously unified country. One has only to walk among the scarred

ruins of Srebrenica and the hundreds of ethnically cleansed villages throughout Bosnia to understand that it is

only a matter of time before this boundary becomes the border that it really is. In fact, nowhere in the world

today is the absence of freedom of movement more symbolic of a growing but tragic consensus for permanent partition

as a way to reconcile irreconcilable differences.

And yet memories fade. For this reason, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides an interesting

model for other nations that seek to reconcile without sacrificing the cause of justice.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is charged with determining facts. It cares less about jailing those responsible

for ordering and executing apartheid crimes than it does with understanding and exposing the chain-of-command.

Those who step forward with credible evidence of who did what, where, and when may be granted amnesty. Those who

do not, face prosecution.

To be sure, the Commission has a limited mandate. But it was established because Nelson Mandela knew that reconciliation

could not be achieved in South Africa until past deeds are collectively accounted for, and then revealed for all

the world to see.

This is because the truth, as Mr Mandela understood it from the confines of his prison cell, is not his alone.

Nor does he now presume forgiveness on the part of other victims when he speaks to his compatriots on the subject

of reconciliation from his well-deserved presidential pulpit.

For South Africa, the Truth Commission does not belong to jurists and juries, least of all to politicians. It represents

the very soul and foundation of the country in the post-apartheid era. It is because this commission exists that

reconciliation among black and white South Africans is even possible.

It has been years since Pol Pot and his cohorts led Cambodia down its tortuous path to the year zero. For this,

Ieng Sary has no remorse. Indeed, he claims that he never killed anyone. What he fails to understand is that there

are no statutory limitations to crimes against humanity - nor are they measured by who pulls the trigger.

It is one thing to pardon as an act of tolerance and forgiveness. It is quite another for truth to be obscured

by the re-writing of history. Historical revisionism, of the sort now in vogue in Phnom Penh, is not only dangerous

for Cambodia as a nation, it is an insult to those who have died at the unrepentant hands of criminals like Ieng

Sary. His victims deserve better.

- (Jamie Factor, a former resident of Phnom Penh, served most recently as an elections official in Bosnia-Hercegovina.


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