Recognition beyond recognition

Globalisation transformed Western conceptions of witnessing and bearing witness to gross violations of human rights. It prompted the development of hybrid forms deemed more likely to bridge between Euro-American humanitarian discourses and cultural specificities. It is a model that transitional justice epitomises in Sierra Leone, East Timor, Kosovo and Cambodia. To what extent can it be exported into other realms?

Participatory projects such as ‘Breaking the silence’ and ‘We want (u) to know’ show how difficult the application of ‘hybrid’ forms might be when it comes to socio-cultural contexts of witnessing. The reflection of Kelly Oliver on the notion of ‘recognition’ encapsulates the traps such collaborative endeavours of Westerners and local communities run the risk of falling into. First, who is conferring recognition? If these are the Westerners—that is, the ‘dominant group’—the process simply repeats old hierarchies (often colonial) and oppositions between subject and object-other (2004, p. 79). Then, what is recognised? According to Oliver, these are often the elements familiar to the subject (2004, p. 80). As a result, the latter will hardly be able to listen to and look at what is different or will tend to turn it into sameness. Such ‘levelling’ is indeed what happens when Annemarie Prins selects, rewrites, translates parts of the testimonies she gathered with the help of the DC-Cam staff or when the team of ‘We want (u) to know’ removes from the final cut disturbing (in their view) sequences in which Cambodian villagers re-enacted Khmer Rouge killings. Does it make these two attempts false witnessing for all that? Questions as to the involvement and agency of the Khmer participants in the projects, or the empowerment and relief brought to Cambodian audiences are all legitimate, but can hardly be answered in univocal ways.