Book Review: The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia

Alexander Laban Hinton, The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

The Justice Facade: Trials of Transition in Cambodia is a rich ethnographic story of the arrival of transitional justice in Cambodia, the challenges of its development and the successes and failures of its outreach. The book compiles over two decades of Alexander Laban Hinton’s work in Cambodia both as the ethnographer and an expert witness in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a hybrid court, established in 2003,  specialized in trying high-ranking officials from the Khmer Rouge regime (April 17, 1975, and January 7, 1979).

The argument of the book is organized around a critique of the conceptual assumptions in the idea of the “justice cascade,” coined by Kathryn Sikkink.[1] The postulate of the “justice cascade” is that a former authoritarian society, where crimes against humanity took place, will transit into a stage of liberal democracy by implementing international justice norms. Therefore, international justice will cascade down from the universal to local. For Hinton, the universal does not exist; it is a utopia, an imaginary. The “[t]ransitional justice imaginary” belongs to the “human rights regimes” (10) that are deeply rooted in the (Western) progressivist assumptions of stage theories, “informed by Enlightenment conceptions about the betterment of the human condition through the application of the scientific method, secularism and reason” (8). Hinton asserts that these concepts undermine the specificities of the local contexts where transitional justice lands, which are, in most cases, underdeveloped former colonies, third world countries, severely damaged by wars and dictatorships. Even more importantly, the societies where the universalizing forces of transitional justice land often have different conceptualizations of temporality than the West, while justice is usually practiced somewhat differently than it is imagined within transitional justice.

How does Hinton defend these positions? In the introduction, he embraces the critical scholarship of globalization and frames transitional justice as a force driven by progressivism, universalism and essentialism. He uses the metaphor “justice façade” to show what transitional justice pushes to the forefront and what is obscured and left out. Hinton believes that transitional justice cannot live up to its utopian promises and move society from authoritarianism to democracy. To understand why – he invites the readers to look at what the facade covers. At the center of Hinton’s interest are the lived experiences of the people who interact with the institutions of transitional justice, or what he calls the “phenomenology of transitional justice.” He believes that the interactions with transitional justice create “combustions” – moments of opportunities for small-scale changes that arise from the interaction with the mechanisms of transitional justice. Hinton provides the readership with successful and unsuccessful examples. The book reveals a plethora of actors who shaped and influenced the development of transitional justice in Cambodia. By learning about their personal experiences, the book successfully portrays the complexities of the transitional justice processes and a multitude of ways these processes engage with a troubled past.

The critique of the “justice cascade” appears in the structure of the book. Instead of the linear flow of transitional justice, Hinton believes that the process is unpredictable and full of vortices, turbulences and eddies. These three metaphors are also the titles of the three parts of the book. The first part provides a short and highly informative historical introduction to Cambodian society and several attempts to introduce international justice norms after the Khmer Rouge regime. Following that, the readers get introduced to the leading human rights NGOs and advocates in Cambodia and the vortices they had to navigate during the development and implementation of transitional justice. The first part dedicates special attention to the processes of translating transitional justice norms for the Cambodian socio-cultural context. Throughout numerous vignettes, Hinton shows that the translation is not only a matter of language but a highly complex process of exposing society to new concepts and practices. The chapter explains the importance of Buddhism in the processes of translation and of Buddhist monks as the interpreters of the international justice norms into the language of Buddhist values.  The chapter also illustrates how the western education of the refugees who returned to practice law in Cambodia, and the popular culture they were exposed to abroad, influenced these processes, framed expectations and actions. In a particularly telling vignette, one NGO practitioner explains how she, while growing in the United States, acquired legal vocabulary through watching TV shows like LA Law or Ally McBeal. In Cambodia, she had to explain what a prosecutor was because people assumed it was an object.

The second part of the book “Turbulences” continues to deal with the translation of international norms, by focusing on aesthetics. This part precisely captures the clashes between the global and the local by observing the architecture of the court, symbols, and the art pieces produced by the former victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. In this part, Hinton skillfully explains how legal language goes beyond words and utilizes visual means. However, by continuing to explore problems of translation and the role of religion in the understanding of international justice, the second part is often too descriptive and repetitive. The ethnography of this part of the book dwells in the courtroom which creates a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere and the monotony tires the reader.

The last part finally steps out of the courtroom. It takes the reader to the eddies of the production of a theater play about the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime – “Breaking the Silence,” written and directed by a Dutch playwright Annemarie Prins. While the readers follow the development of the theater play, they recognize the patterns of the universalizing aims behind transitional justice that they get acquainted with in the first two parts of the book. This part shows numerous misunderstandings between the Cambodian actors and the director of the play. Hinton explains how the director was persistent in keeping the name of the production while the locals tried to persuade her that it has no meaning in the Khmer language. In the end, the play officially toured as “Breaking the Silence,” while locals called it “Pol Pot Stories.” This final part rounds up Hinton’s critique by successfully showing the clash between the universalizing forces embedded in the Western rationality and the resilience of the local level.

The Justice Façade is an insightful account of the arrival of transitional justice in Cambodia and the challenges that both the international and local practitioners faced. The book harshly criticizes the globalizing assumptions behind the transitional justice endeavor. By employing numerous vignettes from the author’s ethnographic work, it shows how, by looking behind the “justice façade,” one can perceive what is obscured, forgotten and neglected. For those already engaged in the critical scholarship of transitional justice, this book might not bring much more than a regional study. Having in mind how thick and complicated the Cambodian context is, that alone justifies the book. However, for those who are just starting to discover the criticism of international justice, Alexander Laban Hinton offers an argumentative, informed and persuasive account of the unfulfilled promises of peace, justice and reconciliation.

Astrea Pejović
Central European Unviersity, Budapest
Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology

[1] Sikkink, K. 2011. The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions Are Changing World Politics. New York: WW Norton & Company.