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Open Access Publications from the University of California

False promise and new hope: Dead perpetrators, imagined documents and emergent archival evidence

  • Author(s): Caswell, M
  • Gilliland, AJ
  • et al.

© 2015 Taylor & Francis. When those accused of being high-level perpetrators of human rights abuse die before publicly yielding their secrets in legal and archival arenas, victims may simultaneously express relief about the perpetrator’s demise and grief that, along with it, possible crucial information about the past is lost forever. Although the accused do not usually directly admit their actions and the teasing out of what actually happened is dependent upon the complex processes of cross-examination of their testimony and of records and other forms of evidence, victims project such moments of revelation onto the public act of holding accused perpetrators to account. In their deaths, the accused become foreverfrom- now-on unavailable and thus unassailable evidence – in essence; they are transformed into imagined documents that can never be cross-examined. In this construction, the would-be testimony of perpetrators is given epistemological validity over that of victims, offering up the false and unfulfillable promise of establishing a singular truth. Complicating this scenario, however, is the increasingly open-ended hope offered to victims, judicial processes and historians alike by the application of new forensic methods, for example, in the examination of gravesites and human remains, and by satellite footage, that are generating additional categories of evidence. Using the juridical and archival legacies of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Yugoslav Wars as case studies, this article argues that when perpetrators die before giving legal testimony, survivors and victims’ families construct them as unavailable documents with imaginary agency to settle competing versions of history. Such imagined documents enter into a complex landscape of human rights archives that has heretofore been exclusively focused on tangible evidence. First, this article frames the case of Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary, charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, who died before giving his testimony in a hybrid tribunal. In the face of diverse archival documentary evidence capable of presenting a more complete and complex picture of atrocities, it contemplates why survivors and victims’ family members placed high hopes on his potential testimony, essentially constructing him as a now-dead living document. Second, it explores a parallel case, that of the death of Slobodan Milošević while being tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and argues that the notion of a dead perpetrator as imagined document has less sway when the public has the opportunity to hear the perpetrator defend himself, regardless of the perpetrator’s own admission (or denial) of culpability. Third, it proposes the notion of imaginary documents. It argues that such imaginary documents challenge dominant conceptions of the evidentiary qualities of tangible records and the archival legacies of trauma by insisting on a more dynamic and holistic view of records that takes the affect of survivors and victims’ family members into account.

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