Browsing articles in "Human Rights"
Mar 15, 2013

History and Justice

Ieng Sary during a trial in 2012 (from Reuters).

Ieng Sary during a trial in 2012 (from Reuters).

Yesterday the United Nations-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC) informed that the Foreign Minister during the Khmer Rouge government, Ieng Sary, died. Arrested in 2007, he was facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during his tenure. Allegedly, he convinced Cambodian diplomats abroad to go back to their country to help the Khmer Rouge revolution, only to be sent to “re-education” camps and be assassinated, and actively participated in other executions. Due to his death, the Court suspended the process against him.

With the death of Sary, the chances that former members of the Khmer Rouge face justice are reducing. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, this movement ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, provoking around 1.7 million deaths. The Khmer Rouge followed a radical version of communism. For instance, they forced city inhabitants to move to the fields to work in agriculture, and the use of glasses was punished as they were seen a symbol of the bourgeoisie and capitalism. In 1979, a Vietnamese invasion ended the Khmer Rouge government. Some of its leaders (including Pol Pot) fled, while others remained in Cambodia out of public light or resumed their political careers, mostly in the People’s Party, which has been in power for 27 years, with Hun Sen as Prime Minister.

Sary was one of the four top Khmer Rouge figures to face trial. Kaing Guek Eav, a prison commander, was sentenced to life prison in 2012. Nuon Chea, Khmer Rouge’s ideologue, and Khieu Samphan, the formal head of state, are still in trial. Pol Pot died in 1997 in a community of Cambodia controlled by remnants of the Khmer Rouge.

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have serious doubts that any of the remaining former leaders of the movement will face justice. There is a similar concern with former top officials in other authoritarian regimes, such as militaries in Latin America and Southern Europe. The first problem is age; these leaders are around their 80s. Furthermore, given that the crimes of which they are accused occurred decades ago, it is difficult to retrieve and present the necessary evidence to convict them. However, a key difference between Latin American and Southern American, and Cambodian processes is that in the former regions governments are ready to conduct or to allow a process of revision and reconciliation, which is viewed within the larger context of democratization. Conversely, with the People’s Party still in power, there is little space for a similar opportunity in Cambodia. Even more, there have been complaints that judges in charge of Khmer Rouge trials have, under purpose, not investigated as thoroughly as possible evidence against Pol Pot’s aides, and have suspended without reason the processes.

Is it then that Khmer Rouge figures will not meet justice? Yes and no. On the one hand, Human Rights Watch’s worries that, due to whatever obstacles set or to their advanced ages, defendants will not listen to their sentences are very real. On the other hand, paraphrasing Fidel Castro, “history will judge them”. The legacy of authoritarian regimes is source of controversy in many countries. For instance, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet was a repressive leader, but achieved the stabilization of the economy after the severe crisis during the last months of Allende’s government. Or Castro himself established a regime that curtailed liberties while promoting socioeconomic equality. However, there is not much debate around the fact that Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge experiment left anything else than death and chaos in Cambodia. The movement is clearly labeled by history as one of the worst crimes in history. Surely this is not enough for victims, but it leaves little, if any, space for a good assessment of Pol Pot and his clique any time in the future.


Mar 12, 2013

The Press in the Americas

This weekend, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) had its midyear meeting in Puebla, Mexico. Its conclusions began by stating that the two most pressing threats for press freedom in the region are “authoritarian and intolerant governments that multiply and re-invent their harassment to journalism” and violence.

Regarding the first concern, government opposition to the press, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama are identified as the most extreme cases. The image SIP shows is that of a frank war of governments against independent media. The tools that have proven to be the most effective are the suspension of paid government ads (which in some countries and for some publications or broadcasters represent a substantial portion of publicity revenues) and accusations of provoking instability. As for violence, Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru are the hallmark cases.

Otherwise said, IAPA presents serious doubts about the level of democracy in the Americas because of the obstacles found for the freedom of the press, a hallmark of the freedom of expression. Not surprisingly, the most affected countries are those where a transition from an authoritarian regime took place recently. This underlines a well-known feature of many democratizing regimes of this and other regions: dissent and opposition are values not yet embedded in the public life of those countries.

However, according to IAPA, obstacles to freedom of expression are not limited to former or current authoritarian regimes. For instance, Canadian journalists commented on the out-of-date state of the national legislation on access to information, which effectively prevents citizens from knowing many things that their government does. In the U.S., IAPA points out apparent contradictions between the signing of the so-called Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act in November last year, while prosecuting officials that have disclosed government confidential information under the argument that they posed national security threat (such as the Bradley Manning / Wikileaks case). While these problems do not seriously menace the democratic nature of those countries, they represent some hindrances to the free debates required in a democracy that appear when the false dilemma of security and publicity of government information emerges.



Feb 19, 2013


Yoani Sánchez (to the left, in white shirt and long hair) arriving in Brazil. Supporters and detractors walk with her at the airport (from El Informador).

Yoani Sánchez (to the left, in white shirt and long hair) arriving in Brazil. Supporters and detractors walk with her at the airport (from El Informador).

In October last year, the Cuban government announced an Immigration and Tourism reform. Since January 2013 Cubans would be able to travel abroad just with their passports, no longer requiring the so-called “exit visa”, a permit that allowed them to leave the country. Despite the enthusiasm that the relaxation of immigration measures initially provoked, Cubans were quick to notice that it did not mean that they could leave and return to the country as they pleased.  The government still retains control of migratory flows by deciding who will receive a passport.

Yoani Sánchez applied for this document, received it, and is now in a world tour. She is the acknowledged writer of the Generación Y blog (English version: Its title makes reference to the fad during the 70s, whose reason remains obscure for many Cubans, to include a y in the names of their newborns: Yoandris, Yowlys, Oreydi, Yunior, Robeisy, Yurileidys, etc. Apparently, the government promoted this to demonstrate that the island was different by making its own Socialist way in the Americas. Sánchez dedicates her blog to people who bear a y in their names, and that saw their childhood marked by lots of rural schools, Russian cartoons, and illegal immigration.

It is tempting to try to uncover the motivations that led the Cuban government to issue the passport to Sánchez. After living in Switzerland for  couple of years, she returned to Cuba in 2002 and did not leave the country until this week, when she began her tour. With it, she is accepting invitations from diverse organizations who are interested in her blog, where she posts vignettes illustrating the control of the government over the economy, the diverse constraints to all kinds of freedom, or how people try to overcome the difficulties of scarcity. Her first stop was Brazil; next, she will go to Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the U.S.

Otherwise said, she is popular within the circle of media activists for democracy and human rights. It would be surprising that the Cuban government did not know this in advance. But the Cuban government also knows that, maybe even without trying, it can find supporters in many places of the world. For instance, just after going through customs in the airport in Brazil, a group of people confronted Yoani Sánchez by yelling that she was a CIA agent trying to depose the Cuban government with anti-Castro posts on her blog. She responded that she was glad to be in a democratic country where people could just speak their mind without a policeman interrogating them afterwards. Later that night, a group of pro-Cuba activists boycotted a film premiere she was scheduled to attend. Thus, the goal would be to create doubts about her image. Or maybe it was just the Cuban government trying to release some pressure against itself, by allowing a political opponent to leave the country for some months. If there was any particular intention in the Cuban authorities by issuing Sánchez a passport, perhaps future stops of her tour will offer more clues to it.


Feb 1, 2013
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Required Watching: “A Whisper to a Roar”

The Department of State and the National Archives offered two independent screenings of Dr. Larry Diamond’s new film A Whisper to a Roar this week. Co-produced and written by Ben Moses, the film is a must-see.

It offers a glimpse into pivotal moments of struggle, triumph, and frustration among democracy activists in Egypt, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Unlike many films about political transitions, it does not highlight a shining beacon of democratic transition upon which all others can be compared; instead, A Whisper to a Roar brilliantly dives into the complexities of governance, elections, and repression. It depicts horrific, disturbing images of state-sanctioned torture and murder that have resulted from authoritarianism. It shows the personal risks taken by activists as they demand accountable and democratic governance. It chronicles the reality that activists face in their struggles for fundamental freedom around the world and in so-doing provides a critical link between political freedom and the protection of human rights.

Cross posted here:

Jan 29, 2013

“History will judge…”

General Ríos Montt (from AP).

General Ríos Montt (from AP).

Yesterday a court in Guatemala took the necessary steps to begin the trial against General Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity because of the killing of 1,771 Mayans during his tenure as head of state between 1982 and 1983, during the country’s 36-year long civil war (1960-1996).

Even before it formally begins (allegedly, some pre-trial hearings have already taken place), the announcement of the trial is historic: Gral. Ríos Montt will be the first former head of state in Latin America to face a civilian court in his own country for abuses during his government. The previous most similar case was that of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990. He also faced a tribunal under charges of gross human rights violations, but it was in Spain. Thus, Ríos’ trial represents an unparalleled opportunity for national judicial authorities to bring to justice the ultimate responsible government official for the abuses committed, the head of state. In addition, several press reports and statements issued by organizations such as Human Rights Watch point out the remarkable feature of Guatemala, a country usually identified with impunity and a chronically weak judiciary system, putting to trial one of its own war criminals for maybe the largest massacre in its national history.

On the other hand, the possibility that nothing comes out of the trial must be considered. Ríos Mont is in his mid eighties. It can occur that, as Pinochet, he dies at the middle of the process. Or that despite of the good intentions of the judges, the bureaucratic inertia of the judiciary system makes it impossible to carry out the trial in proper time. What is more, evidence might be collected inadequately and the whole case could be deemed unacceptable. Finally, there could be large dissatisfaction with the sentence dictated; what punishment for having ordered the killing of more than 1,700 people can be adequate for a man close to his nineties?

As a friend’s law professor said, justice that comes late is injustice. Almost thirty years have passed since the murders, and the prospects for conviction are anything but clear. However, the public claiming that Ríos Montt could be guilty and that it is to be decided on the courts might be a proxy to justice, although maybe only in the sense that efforts were made not to let him get his way.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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