ECCC Reparations

This blog is designed to serve as a repository of analyses, news reports and press releases related to the issue of RERAPATIONS within the framework of the Extraordinary Chambers in Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a.k.a. the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Academics at Loggerheads (1995): Heder v Vickery



Phnom Penh Post, 3-16 November 1995, p. 16.


The war of the academics over the human rights record of subsequent regimes rages on. Here, Steven Heder counters Michael Vickery's views on history and historians.

I welcome this opportunity to respond to the rejoinder by Michael Vickery (PPP, Aug 11-24, 1995) to my review of Ben Kiernan's contributions to the monograph Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia, and thus to clarify a few of the historical, intellectual and moral issues the former has raised in this and other recent correspondence.

As readers will have noticed, Vickery believes that everything written about Cambodia that he thinks is true has been pirated from him, while imagining everything he thinks is false ultimately reflects the propaganda of the great powers, their proxies and their naive dupes. In fact, he seems to be losing touch with events and perhaps with reality as well. David Ashley was rightly surprised that Vickery was unfamiliar with the official publicity that surrounded the signing of political and military alliances between FUNCINPEC and the Cambodian People's Party in late 1991. It appears that Vickery has also not followed closely the contents of such core scholarly periodicals as the Journal of Asian Studies. If he were more up on such things, he would know that I published a review of all the contents of Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia there in 1994 (Volume 53, Number 3). Within the space limits imposed, I expressed my views on the scholarly debate about the extent of applicability of the legal concept of genocide to events in Cambodia between 1975 and 1978. Contrary to what Vickery suggests, my conclusion was that those like Kiernan who argue that there was a genocide against several categories of Cambodians are closer to being right than those like Vickery who believe the contrary.

I continue, as I have for many years, fully to support the principle of bringing to justice those responsible for political killings, torture and other gross violations of human rights in Cambodia and elsewhere, including those responsible for acts of genocide when the Communist Party of Kampuchea was in power. It was for this reason that from its conception I contributed as an advisor to the activities of the Cambodian Documentation Commission, the first human rights-oriented organization dedicated to application of the Genocide Convention to Cambodia, and the one which during the 1980s did the most to promote this goal among the public and with governments, inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations all over the world. It was also for this reason that I was very pleased about the enactment by the United States Congress of the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act and the creation of an Office of Cambodian Genocide Investigations to submit relevant data to any properly constituted national or international penal tribunal that may be convened to formally hear and judge a case against those members of the former Communist Party of Kampuchea national political and military leadership accused of genocide in Cambodia. I have offered my full cooperation with the efforts of the Cambodian Genocide Program toward this end, and despite my clearly-stated differences with its Director Ben Kiernan on a variety of other issues, including his seriously flawed record with regard to human rights matters more generally, I am opposed to efforts to have his funding withdrawn. I believe that regardless of the views he held about the Communist Party of Kampuchea while it was in power, he should not be punished but rewarded for his desire to contribute by the means set forth in the Genocide Act to the Cambodian and United States commitment, enshrined in the human rights provisions of Paris Agreements, to "take effective measures to ensure that the policies and practices of the past shall never be allowed to return.". I still have hopes to see evidence that he is also prepared to contribute to other "special measures to assure protection of human rights" for which the Paris Agreements call in Cambodia in order more globally "to ensure respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms" there and "to support the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities which would promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms".

I am not so optimistic about Vickery in this regard. To my knowledge, he has never supported or assisted the work of any bone fide human rights organization, Cambodian or international, that has been active in promoting the protection of human rights in Cambodia or elsewhere. Indeed, his clear record with regard to Cambodia is one of consistent objection to their activities. By his own admission, he rejects some of the most basic tenets of international human rights and humanitarian law, notably the concept of universal jurisdiction, according to which the perpetrators of the most serious human rights violations, such as political murder and torture, can legitimately be brought to justice anywhere.

Vickery denies that past United States Government employment should be used .as a criterion or analytic device in explaining why people understand Cambodian politics in the way that they do. As well he might, since he is the only American scholar of Cambodia who has a past as a United States intelligence operative. During his military service, he reportedly did counter-intelligence work aimed at the Soviet Union. Ironically, while the official American nature of his past employment appears to be not directly relevant to understanding his current worldview, his spy-catcher background does seem to have some explanatory value in this regard. Those familiar with the full corpus of his work cannot fail to be struck by the extent to which his mind-set is similar to that of the likes of James Jesus Angleton of the CIA and Peter Wright of MI5, who became obsessed with bizarre theories about the imagined conspiracies of the "moles" they suspected their political enemies had planted here, there and everywhere. His grotesquely ridiculous insinuations that, for example, the United States or those he believes are somehow its instruments ginned up violence against Khieu Samphan and Son Sen in 1991 or against FUNCINPEC in 1992 and 1993 in order to blame it on Hun Sen are on a par with the Angleton's and Wright's paranoid belief that the late British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a KGB spy who had risen to his post via the assassination of a fellow senior Labour figure. (Those interested in the phenomenon may wish to read Tom Mangold's Cold Warrior James Jesus Angleton: The CIA's Master Spy Hunter.) The problem with the cowardly and cryptic heavy hints that Vickery constantly drops about such matters is not, as he whines, that the evidence for his suspicions is not "firmly enough established for the requirements of an academic publication", but that it exists only in his mind. Vickery's poacher turned game-keeper transformation must also be understood in terms of the dilute Stalinist tradition of "history as conspiracy" that he appears to have increasingly mimicked in the course of his love affair with the People's Republic of Kampuchea and State of Cambodia. The justification that this political and intellectual tradition provides for human rights violations is well-known and rather well-illustrated by Vickery's case. (Those interested in this may want to take a look at Robert C Tucker's classic The Soviet Political Mind: Stalinism and Post-Stalin Change, or at William L O'Niel's A Better World, the Great Schism: Stalinism and the American Intellectuals.)

In an attempt to peddle one of his crackpot conspiracy theories, Vickery asserts that what he dubs the "special reports" about Cambodia on which I worked for Amnesty International were "in startling contrast" to its entries in its Annual Report about the country and "contrary to countries more favoured by the US regime". This is utter non-sense. First, I was just as responsible for the Annual Report entries as for the "special reports". Second, all the work I did on Cambodia for Amnesty International was written according to a mandate and to standards identical with that which was reflected in my work for the organization on other Asian countries, including Thailand, Burma, China, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Viet Nam, regardless of the configuration of their international relations. This is obvious from any serious examination of Amnesty International's mandate and standards and a comparison of all these works, which Vickery clearly has not attempted. It could be attested to by a wide variety of current and former Amnesty International officials with direct knowledge of my work, if he would take the proper historian's care to combine detailed documentary research with interviewing of primary sources. But while Vickery may be credited with practising his historian's craft in a professional manner in other areas, this is not one of them.

This is part of the reason why Vickery has so many facts (or insinuations) wrong. For example, Amnesty did not release its reports on Cambodia in the 1980s to coincide with intergovernmental or non-governmental meetings and thus as part of some sort of great-power plot aimed at the Phnom Penh government. The timing was dictated by production schedules and competing events, such as the urgent need to deal with torture of Cambodian refugees by military authorities in Thailand, which delayed the publication of Amnesty's most substantial account of human rights violations in the People's Republic of Kampuchea (Kampuchea: Political Imprisonment and Torture, June 1987). That report dealt in full with the 1986 decree-law on arrest (not, as Vickery mistakenly says, on criminal procedure), and it called for the effective implementation of those of the legislation's provisions incorporating human rights safeguards, while pointing out the many areas in which improvements were needed. Subsequent events have fully justified this approach, and the 1988 article to which Vickery refers was only one of several official recognitions that the provisions of the law were being violated. These People's Republic of Kampuchea admissions and new legal and other measures to remedy the human rights situation in Cambodia were described and welcomed in subsequent Amnesty International publications on which I worked, which also included recommendations for ways in which to make further improvements. (Those who are interested may look at, for example, "Cambodia: Recent Human Rights Developments", December 1990.)

A most important fact concerning Amnesty International about which Vickery appears to be totally ignorant is that its researchers and even the executive directors of its many national sections do not decide the organization's mandates or policies. It is not the kind of institution to which Vickery is attracted: that is, it is not one in which such decisions are imposed from above. Rather, it is a democratic movement with a membership and an elected representational structure in which policy-making power is invested. Researchers at its international secretariat and the national executive directors are like civil servants, employed to execute the decisions made by the representatives of the membership. Of course, individual members and employees do have personal views, and in some cases express them privately in non-Amnesty outlets, like newspapers. This is what William F Schulz has done in his 1994 article. However, it is absurd to suggest that Amnesty publications from the 1980s were out of line with organizational standards then because of the personal views of one Amnesty official now.

Equally fallacious is Vickery's insinuation that the "special reports" to which he refers were "biased misrepresentation of the human rights situation in Cambodia" because they did not highlight the historical circumstances in which violations were then being committed. He is unhappy that Amnesty did not concentrate on the excuse of circumstances to condone the abuses, as he like all typical apologists for repressive regimes invariably do. Of course, the real reason for Amnesty's stance in this regard was not bias, but the impartiality embodied in its principled stance that, as Vickery puts it, "human rights violations were human rights violations" and "standards were absolute". A corollary position, proclaimed at every opportunity by Amnesty, was its refusal to grade governments according to their record on human rights. Thus, instead of attempting comparisons it has concentrated on trying to end the specific violations of human rights in each case. In practice, what this means is trying always to come to the aid of today's victims, regardless of whether yesterday's government, neighbouring governments or current opposition groups are better or worse than the administration of the day. As a historian and a political actor, Vickery is free to disagree with this approach, to argue against it in print or even to join Amnesty International and put his case to experienced human rights advocates and campaigners. He may even be right.

However, I continue to think he is wrong and hope readers will ponder the moral deficiencies of his logic. According to his line of reasoning, no one should be concerned about human rights violations in today's Kingdom of Cambodia because despite all the defects and the badly deteriorating situation, there are still fewer cases of arbitrary detention of prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners, of torture, of political killing and of death in detention than under any previous Cambodian political regime. To hell with the (relatively smaller if growing number of) victims! At least things are better than they were under the Khmer Rouge!

Finally, to return to Vickery's rejoinder to my review of Kiernan, he is wrong to maintain that Kiernan wrote mostly about genocide. Rather, he dealt mostly with broader political and international relations questions related to the Paris Agreements. Vickery tries to criticize me for agreeing with Kiernan on a number of fronts, but he is totally silent when it comes to confronting the most important planks of my argument: that Kiernan was mistaken to believe that the Paris Agreements were designed to favour the Partie of Democratic Kampuchea, and incorrect to maintain that through their implementation, it managed to make large-scale gains. Moreover, I did not say that Kiernan's review of David P Chandler was "thinly disguised", but that he tried to dress up a political smear tactic as sociology of knowledge. Kiernan did not simply assert the existence of an endemic "anti-Vietnamese bias" within Cambodian studies, but specifically accused Chandler of such prejudice and followed this with his tendentious remarks about the supposed effects of association with the United States Government. Readers may look at Kiernan's text to draw their own conclusions about what he was trying to say. (Readers may also wonder what sort of quantitative methods go into the dubious lament in Kiernan's review that "Cambodia studies" is "numerically dominated" by current and former government and United Nations officials and the similarly debatable claim by Vickery and others who signed the letter in the Post professing to vouch for Kiernan that they and their students constitute "the majority who publish in the field". Something seems not quite to add up.)

Steve Heder

London, United Kingdom



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