Vietnam has an interesting sense of history - something I am thinking about today as John McCain is revisiting this city where he was held in prison, now advocating human rights and economic reforms. Two other news stories have touched on this recently: the trial of Alberto Fujimori in Peru and the tribunals of Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia.
Briefly, the Khmer Rouge was a communist group which came to power in Cambodia. Under its leader Pol Pot, Cambodia was ruled brutally, with a number close to 1.5 million people killed in only a four year time span. No one knows for sure. Of interest now is the way that Cambodia is dealing with that history. The country is incredibly young - over 70% of the 14 million Cambodians are under the age of 30. In fact, 1/3 of the country is under the age of 14. The people who lived through the Khmer Rouge are a small fraction of the population now, and their stories seem far-fetched to the country's young population. It is an interesting question of how you deal with history - do you try to steep these young children in an awareness of the country's past? The reasons that the fields around their homes are riddled with bones? Or do you bury the past and simply wait for the generation of people who lived through it to die?
On a similar note, Alberto Fujimori - former president of Peru - was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of murder, agravated kidnapping, and crimes against humanity. Fujimori was president of Peru during the years when the Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path") wrecked havoc in the southern countryside. The Maoist group spread through university students who became rural teachers, started by Abimael Guzman in Ayacucho during the 1960's. It turned violent in the 1980's and continued into the 1990's. Fujimori was president from 1990-2000, ruling over the final government attempts to put down the insurgency. After his government collapsed, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated the crimes committed during the period, finding a death toll of close to 70,000 people. About half of those were due to the Sendero Luminoso; the government and a few other factions were accountable for the remainder. Fujimori's explanation for the crimes committed under his goverment: “I had to govern from hell,” he said. “That is why I am being judged.”
A variety of mechanisms have been employed to hold leaders accountable for actions taken during their regimes. These mechanisms include national or UN-backed Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (eg. South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Peru, East Timor, Rwanda); national trials within the judicial system (such as Fujimori's or the one intended for Chilean leader Augosto Pinochet; nationally-run but specially formed tribunals (like the one that condemned Saddam Hussein); special international tribunals (like those for Rwandan and Yugoslavian leaders); and the international criminal court (which indited Al-Bashir). Each of these carries carefully nuanced implications. Nonetheless, in absolute terms the number of leaders who have been held accountable post-mortem; while they are still alive; or while they are still in 'office' has grown steadily. If this implies an increasingly credible commitment to holding individuals and regimes responsible for the human rights abuses committed under their watch, then what are the implications? (And, in particular, will the international community ever be able to hold accountable the leader of a G8/NATO/'powerful' country - as some have demanded Kissinger or Nixon be? What would be the implications if that were to happen?)
In this context, the question that a variety of political theorists are trying to answer is whether or not the commitments to try leaders for criminal acts will be credible enough to impact those decisions in the first place. Will these tribunals serve as a deterrent? Are they a part of the process of healing for those who lived through a brutal reign? Or is it a way of reconciling honestly with the past in order to prevent similar acts from occurring in the future?
Cambodia and Peru offer different visions of how holding leaders accountable can play out. Cambodia's population seems broadly unaware of the trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders, according to the Berkeley survey cited in the NY Times. Meanwhile, in Peru, Fujimori's daughter is a senator running for President in the next elections, with the promise that if elected she will pardon her father. His supporters were demonstrating in the streets at news of his conviction. Lessons can be found from other countries as to what the long-term implications of these events will be, yet I hesitate to make too many generalizations based on any one country's experience. Grappling with the past, with the symbolism of 'mythic' leaders, and with the shape and form of justice - these will vary across time and place.
For example, at this point in time, I cannot imagine Vietnam holding a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or a trial for crimes committed during either the Vietnam war or the more brutal era of communism post-war - only partly because the party is still in power. I don't know what it would accomplish to do so. This reveals to me that I ethically judge these trials on the utility they provide to those alive/unborn, as opposed to seeing the procedure as being necessary because it, in itself, is right/ethical. I have not fully reconciled myself to the implications of that sentiment, the contradictions it implies, or the inconsistencies in legal and political policy that it would require. Fortunately, there are a great number of very intelligent people writing about theories of international justice and mechanisms for achieving it, so at least there's help to arrive at some conclusions...