Cambodia: the Geopolitical Chessboard


ImageThe history of the cold war boiled down to one sentence would go as follows: The world’s two opposing superpowers – Capitalist United States and Communist USSR – contending for international power and influence through the engagement of militarily armament, military engagement, and proxy wars. The United States commenced with a ‘roll-back policy’ – an attempt to rejuvenate democracy in those countries that had become communist, but this policy was soon shifted to one of containment – the prevention of future countries from becoming communism. When one thinks of the Cold War the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the proxy wars fought in South America, Africa, and the Middle East immediately come to mind. Cambodia is not at the forefront of the discussion, yet it was victim of the geopolitical climate created by the Cold War environment.

Cambodia was declaredly neutral during the Cold War. In fact, to was part of the Non-AlignedImage Movement, a group of states that chose not to align themselves with either the community or capitalist bloc. However, Cambodia became of tremendous interest to both sides of the conflict during the war in Vietnam. Cambodia shares its eastern border with Vietnam, and despite declaring neutrality, it permitted the Viet Cong to use the eastern portions of the country as access routes to the American military forces. When the US discovered this, they proceed to carpet bomb the eastern region of Cambodia, causing immense destruction. The turmoil and destruction of the US bombings in Cambodia gave rise to civil war from 1970 to 1975, in which the Khmer Rouge was eventually victorious. Rumors began to circulate about the atrocities being committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s, so much so that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights launched an investigation into the Pol Pot regime in 1978. The resulting report, the Boudhiba Report, however, was never presented before the United Nations, largely due to the geopolitics surrounding Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979.


In January 1979, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, overthrew Pol Pot’s regime, and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. What needs to be noted on this topic, and which is often forgotten in Cold War history, is that in Asia, China and the USSR were positioned against one another – Maoism vs. Leninism. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, they were backed by the USSR. This immediately incited fear into China who opening opposed Vietnam’s presence in Cambodia and called for the immediately withdraw of all Vietnamese troops. The United States, have just established economic relations with China and not wanting to hinder those relations, sided with China against the USSR backed Vietnamese government in Vietnam. At this time, the remaining Khmer Rouge member had fled to the forest and continued to receive support from the United States and China. Their support of rebel groups in Cambodia was so much that the Khmer Rouge remained the official representative of Cambodia at the United Nations until the after the Peace Agreement of 1991, despite the fact that the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was effectively running the country. In the midst of all this politics, the Boudhiba Report was given little attention. In fact, when its presentation was proposed before the United Nations General Assembly in February 1979, the USSR, the entire Soviet Bloc and the Non-Aligned Movement voted against its admission.

In the wake to the mass atrocities committed in Cambodia, no western government came to Cambodia’s aid, in spite of international commitments made to end such atrocities. “Never Again” was the slogan for the Nuremberg trial, the justification from bringing the Nazi perpetrators to justice, yet in the Cambodian context this pretense did not exist. Not until much later, almost 30 years later. To make matters worse, because to the geopolitical climate of the region, the United States and Great Britain sought to block NGO attempts to get emergency humanitarian aid into the country.

With the developing global conscience, the situation, the exploitation of a country due to geopolitical interest, is simply not acceptable. The Cambodians that died under Pol Pot’s regime were human too and deserve the same rights, protection, and international support as any other person in the world. The movement to end such atrocities requires the active engagement of all countries to create a standard that such crimes are simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Geopolitics should never be a consideration when it comes to human rights violations. 


The Génocidaires: Rethinking Justice

Genocide is a crime and like any other crime it contains two parties: the perpetrators and the victims. When the story of a crime is told, it is the victim’s narrative that is remembered. Even now, 18 years after the genocide, the atrocities that were committed and the impact the have on the victims both in the past and in the present remains at the forefront of most discussions. Knowing these stories is tremendously important to the reconciliation process, to the memorialization process, and to ensuring that such atrocities are not repeated. However, these stories only reveal a portion of the picture. The stories of the perpetrators (or the génocidaires as they are called in Rwanda) also need to be told, particularly in the case of Rwanda, as they have been instrumental in the reconciliation and post-conflict reconstruction of the country.

The Rwanda génocidaires faced criminal justice on one of three levels. Those who were deemed most culpable and responsible for the genocide were brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania; those who were deemed to me mid-level perpetrators with relatively high levels of culpability faced the National Courts of Rwanda; and all other perpetrators were brought before the gacaca courts.

The gacaca courts are a community-based system of justice implemented to alleviate stress on the traditional justicesystem resulting from the high volume of prisoners. Between 2005 and 2011, more than 12,000 gacaca courts tried 1.2 million cases relating to the 1994 Imagegenocide. Despite its ability bring about swift trials, reduce the pressure on the severely overpopulated prison system, and document the genocide into case fact, the gacaca courts have been highly criticized. Human Rights Watch called them ‘Justice Compromised’ in their 2011 Report due the flaws in the trial process that lead to miscarriages of justice. However, given Rwanda’s post-conflict development, it becomes apparent that a tradeoff made in this regard. Although justice was not achieved to an international standard, the sentences brought down by the gacaca courts have greatly assisted in the post-conflict reconstruction of Rwanda.

Travail d’Intérêt Générale (TIG) is a community service organization for prisoners. Those génocidaires who confessed to their crimes were sentenced to reduced prison sentences and/or community service with TIG. In the wake of the genocide Rwanda was in ruins. Buildings, houses, and entire communities had been destroyed in the violence, leaving Rwanda in a perceived state of disrepair. Those perpetrators who have come to work for TIG are participating in development projects to reconstruct Rwanda – the very buildings, homes, and communities they helped destroyed during the genocide. One Rwandan described this very eloquently in reference to one community outside Kigali:

“The people who have made them homeless are the people who have brought them back to life.”

The perpetrators the genocide are quite literally rebuilding the communities they destroyed. They are building houses, schools, and community centers for the victims and in doing so, helping Rwanda transition to a stable post-conflict society. Moreover, this participation in community development has reduced the animosity between perpetrators and victims. Taking responsibility for the crimes that they have committed and actively helping to rebuild what was destroyed during the genocide has played a significant role in the reconciliation process in Rwanda. The victims are grateful for the rebuilding of their community and are satisfied with justice being achieved through community development.


This brings to light an important question: what is more important, justice or reconciliation? Had these individuals been sentenced to 10, 20, or 30 years imprisonment and not had the option for community service many communities in Rwanda would still be destroyed. Moreover, the continued segregation of perpetrators and victims by imprisonment does not foster reconciliation between these two groups. That is not to say that those who were higher up in the chain of command, those who orchestrated the genocide, should get off with mere community service as their punishment. But it should be noted that these were not the majority. The vast majority of genocidaires were individuals acting not out of malicious premeditation, but rather out of fear and uncertainty resulting from the context of civil war, state power, and pre-conceived notions of ethnicity as Strauss demonstrated in his book The Order of Genocide. For these individual who have sincerely repented their actions, is the unity of Rwanda not more important? In these cases, should reconciliation and post-conflict development not be the ultimate goal? It can be argued that Rwanda is where it is today because of programs such as TIG, so how can we argue with such success? Can justice and reconciliation be achieved simultaneously, or are the mutually exclusive?

Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law.  Currently she is travelling to Rwanda with Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar with the Zones of Conflict, Zones of Peace Program.  You can email her at or follow her on twitter @joleneh340

Taking a Stand Against Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is the unspoken story of war. Images of causalities, death, and destruction only tell part of the story. Many individuals, both men and women, are the silent victims of sexual violence in the context of violent conflict. There have been documented cases of sexual violence in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the conflict in the Balkans, as well as the ongoing cases of Syria and Libya (to name a few). Many of the victims do not speak out for fear of being ostracized by their communities; however, eight individuals in Kenya have decided to speak out, fight for their rights, and strive to attain justice.


In Kenya, the post-election violence following the December 2007 election resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,100 people and the displacement of 600,000 individuals. However, many were also victims of sexual violence, a violence that was conducted by police officers and looters in the wake of the chaos created by the contended election results. The acts of sexual violence included, but are not limited to, rape resulting in HIV and forced circumcision. The nature of this violence, its widespread and systematic nature, amounts these crime to the category of crimes against humanity; yet, justice has not been achieved for these victims. Having waited five years for a government response, eight Kenyans have decided sue the Kenya government.

The Nairobi High Court will hear the case in which eight survivors of the sexual violence (two men and six women) are suing the Kenyan government. The grounds upon which this case is being prosecuted is on two counts: the failure of the Kenyan government to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence and failure to both protect victims from the violence and to provide ex post facto services to the victims. Civil society organizations including the Coalition on Violence Against Women, the Independent Medico-Legal Unity, the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists, and Physicians for Human Rights, have been instrumental in supporting these victims in their search for justice. The trial commenced in February 2013. To date, the Kenyan government has not issued a formal apology nor have reparations been offered to these victims.


Violent conflict creates a situation of mass chaos, insecurity, and uncertainty. There are those that take advantage of situations such as these, using it as an opportunity to perpetrate other criminal acts, including sexual violence. The problem is, however, that those being victimized by acts of sexual violence are civilians, innocent bystanders. The fact that these eight individuals are choosing to speak up is groundbreaking in three ways.

First, these individuals are spreading awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence in the midst of conflict, and in doing so, they are reducing the stigmatization of victimization by these acts. These individuals are entitled to the same rights as any other victim and in choosing to claim these rights, these victims are trailblazers in the fight to combat sexual violence.

Second, men as well as women are claiming victimhood. The fact that men have chosen to speak out is incredibly important because sexual violence against men carries a higher stigma than sexual violence against women. Moreover, in the criminal law of many countries sexual violence is written as a crime that can only be committed against a woman. Thus, the voice of these men is giving voice to the other side of this victimhood and is tremendously important in changing the way sexual violence is understood.

Third, the utilization of the Kenyan court, rather than resorting to violent conflict, demonstrates a movement towards faith in the Kenyan judicial system. Historically, the Kenyan judicial system has been criticized as highly corrupt, plagued with rampant impunity. However, since the last election, the Kenyan Constitution has been rewritten given complete independence to the judiciary. The restructuring of the court system was lead by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga who took great pains to insure the independence of the judiciary, retrain judges to eliminate impunity, and educate the general population as to the workings of justice system. The fact that these sexual violence victims are choosing to utilize the justice system demonstrates a movement towards increased trust in Kenya’s judiciary.

For more on sexual violence, see the following links on PeaceMedia:

Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at or follow her on twitter @joleneh340

Creating a Collective Identity out of the Dust of Atrocity

Since the genocide, Rwanda has been stigmatized as being eternally divided by two ethnicImage groups: Tutsi and Hutu. However, reducing the country’s history to this internal ethnic dynamic is not only highly simplistic but also incredibly inaccurate. Rwanda has a deep history that transcends these divisions. The idea of a Rwandan identity – an identity that supersedes ethnic divisions, creating a unified Rwanda – has been a primary goal in Rwanda’s post-conflict reconciliation process; a goal that is evident upon visiting the Kigali Memorial Center.

The theme of the Rwandan reconciliation process, and consequently the Kigali Memorial Center, can be summarized in one quote written on the first panel when one enters the museum’s first exhibit:

“We are one people. We speak one language. We have one history.”

The goal of the exhibit is to tell a very specific narrative: Yes the genocide happened, yes it occurred along ethnic divisions, but Rwanda has historically had a unified identity and there is a need to recreate this identity to unify Rwandans once again. The exhibit commences with a strong statement against colonialization:

“We did not choose to be colonialized”.

In effect, this statement places blame on colonization for the creating of strong Hutu/Tutsi divisions within Rwanda, divisions that would result in a constant strong between these two groups culminating in the 1994 genocide. Prior to colonialization, as the exhibit denotes, Rwandans associated themselves with one of eighteen different clans. Moreover, although the categories of Hutu, Tutsis, and Twa did exist, they were fluid socio-economic divisions within these eighteen clans, changing based on individual circumstance. Thus, prior to colonialism, were was no strong societal division based on Hutu/Tutsis/Twa ethnic categories. Colonialism, however, constructed these divisions and solidified them in 1932 when the identity cards were issued to Rwandans. The determination of one’s ethnicity was based on the number of cattle owned: anyone with ten cows or more was deemed to be a Tutsi and anyone with less than ten cows was labeled a Hutu. Moreover, Belgium colonialist chose to elevate the Tutsis, perceiving them to be more ‘European’ and thus more capable of colonial administration. This created a system in which Tutsis were seen a ‘superior race’ and were given positions of power in the government. The resulting structural violence against the Hutus fostered animosity between these two colonial defined groups.

In giving this storyline, the exhibit creates the narrative of colonialism being the force that disrupted the unified Rwandan state, created ethnic divisions within the country, and planted the seeds for the genocide. After detailing the precursors to the genocide and the genocide itself, the exhibit come full-circle to reiterate this point by giving the following statement:

“There was no ethnic war. There was a civil war. But genocide happened and it was something different.”

In this statement, the exhibit reiterates the point that there was not an ethnic war in Rwanda. The conflict in Rwanda was a civil war; a struggle between exiled Tutsis and the Hutu extremists for control of the country. Genocide happened within the context of this civil war, not separate from it. It was not isolated, but rather the culmination of decades of propaganda and fighting.

The Kigali Memorial Center clearly frames colonialism as being the root cause of Rwanda’s ethnic tensions. Consequently, the goal of its reconciliation is the return to post-colonial state.  This narrative is also apparent in other Rwandan memorial sites and from the mouths of local Rwandans. One Rwandan who I have met, referred to the genocide as ‘The War’ rather than the ‘Tutsis genocide’. His use of the word ‘war’ rather than ‘genocide’ is demonstrative of the understanding that Tutsis and Hutus were both victims of the genocide. Although Tutsis were undoubtedly targeted, statistics also suggest that between 100,000 and 200,000 Hutus were killed doing the outbreak of violence in 1994. Although this sentiment appears small, it is instrumental in the reconstruction of the Rwandan identity.

Identity reconstruction is not something that happens over night. It takes time, generations in fact, for these identities to be adopted. The history of colonialization has demonstrated that ethnic identities can be constructed; therefore, the reconstruction of identity should also be possible. This, however, needs to start with education. This generation of Rwanda’s children, the generation post-genocide, has been educated to adopt the Rwandan identity rather than a Hutu, Tutsis, or Twa identity. If this education is maintained, and the Rwandans continue to be responsive to this concept, then the creation of a renewed, collective Rwandan identity is hopeful. Identity is one of the foundations of human behavior. It can bring people together, but as the Rwandan genocide has demonstrated, it can also tear people apart. This is why the creation of a collective Rwandan identity, an identity that encompasses all Rwandans irrespective of ethnicity, is tremendously important in the creation of a strong, stable, and peaceful Rwanda.

Jolene Hansell is a Master’s Candidate of Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University. Currently she is travelling to Rwanda with Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar with the Zones of Conflict, Zones of Peace Program. Her specific area of focus is transitional justice and rule of law. You can email her at or follow her on twitter @joleneh340