Skulls of Khmer Rouge victims. Photo by Adam Carr, February 2005.
If your child is murdered or your friend is tortured or someone tries to kill you, it is tough to forgive and forget. Animosities that spring from these kinds of brutality run deep. Yet moving on emotionally and psychologically is an important part of rebuilding society after the trauma of conflict and violence.
Different societies deal with these things in different ways. This week Hilary Clinton visited a former prison in Cambodia where thousands were held before being sent to their deaths in the killing fields. She urged the authorities to proceed with trials of the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge so that the country can ‘confront its past’.
This followed the decision by Prime Minister Hun Sen that there would be no more prosecutions after the trials of four senior Khmer Rouge leaders already charged. The prime minister says the country needs to bury the past. Ms. Clinton argues that a country that is unable to confront its past is a country that cannot overcome it.
The same day, there was another story describing how East Timor’s President Jose Ramos Horta plans to free Gastao Salsinha, the former rebel who shot and badly wounded him in 2008. The UN Secretary General, rights groups, and the opposition have reacted to the decision with dismay, saying it will undermine the rule of law.
For President Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, it is about mercy and reconciliation. With internal tensions still strong in his impoverished Asian nation, he believes offering clemency is an opportunity to consolidate peace and stability which outweighs arguments for punitive justice.
Is there a right approach to this thorniest of post-conflict problems? Research for the WDR finds that over the last three decades almost 40 countries have implemented various measures to redress serious human rights abuses.