Thursday, December 17, 2009

Using Technology to Do Justice in Cambodia

Back in August, I blogged about the Special Tribunal for Cambodia, which is trying several leaders of the infamous Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity and violations of the Geneva Conventions. (This link is to the Avalon Project at Yale, which provides the full text of all of the Geneva Conventions). The December issue of LTN (Law Technology News) has published an article entitled "Rain of Terror," written by Claire Duffett, available only to registered subscribers, that describes how translation technology is facilitating the prosecution of the Khmer Rouge leaders. Duffett describes the proceedings, and notes that on one day she attended, trial

participants and the audience wore headsets that translated the proceedings into their language of choice: English, French, or Cambodia's mother tongue, Khmer.

Suddenly, a monsoon began to pound the roof of the courthouse. Static blased from the speakers and into the headsets, then all sound cut out. Everyone sat in a tense silence while the rain drummed overhead. Cambodians believe that heavy showers are the voices of the dead ... The event highlighted the unexpected (and emotionally charged) interruptions that characterize international war crimes tribunals.

In addition to evoking the atmosphere of the courtroom, Duffett describes in detail the infrastructure that has been created to aid the tribunal in its work. "When it first opened offices in early 2006, the [tribunal] lacked a strong, modern technology infrastructure." A fiber optic cable was installed, as were cloth screens to dampen the noise from the torrential rains. AV and translation equipment were purchased, "including headsets, speakers, display monitors, and individual screens inside the chamber." The tribunal also had to purchase servers, desktop and laptop computers, printers, and other equipment, litigation support software, and a document management system which "converts recordings of witness interviews and trial proceedings to compressed digital formats."

The experience of putting together a new system has been stressful for the tribunal's staff. The former chief co-prosecutor, Robert Petit, has said that
'You're creating a system from scratch, bringing people together from different backgrounds, different languages, different professional experiences, and asking them to tackle these complex factual and legal issues, and asking them to do it under the glare of public expectations, the media, and civil society--all for a dime.'

Future upgrades are planned. One exciting possibiity is a satellite system that would allow lawyers to "question witnesses who live in remote areas that lack communication infrastructure--like the small Cambodian vilages where some regime survivors live."

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, Marie! I sent it to my daughter, who is taking a class in interpreting at college. What a powerful and moving story about justice, local culture, the challenges of technology and, yes, interpreting. More info on the background for those too young to recall: