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Robert Petit: A divergent path

Cross Examined
|Written By Glenn Kauth

It was, in many ways, a chance encounter that took Robert Petit on a career path spanning Rwanda to Cambodia. 

It was 1996, and Petit, then a Crown prosecutor with the federal Integrated Proceeds of Crime unit, was looking for a career change. While walking his dog down rue Saint-Denis in Montreal, he found an opportunity in the guise of Luc Côté, a defence lawyer he had faced in court, who at the time had begun working with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The tribunal was looking for  people with expertise in common law who spoke French, a description Petit easily fit.

Soon after, Petit was off to Rwanda for what turned into a three-year stint working in the prosecutor’s office in the capital Kigali. Since then, he has continued globetrotting as an international prosecutor, working for the United Nations in Kosovo as well as jobs in hot spots like East Timor and Sierra Leone. For the last three years, he has been in Cambodia prosecuting alleged perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge genocide that left an estimated 1.8 million people dead between 1975 and 1979.

It’s a job for which Petit, who studied law at the Université de Montréal, clearly has a passion. Noting he hates bullies, Petit says his focus in becoming a lawyer always was to work as a prosecutor. “I profoundly dislike criminals and people who think they’re above the law,” he says. “I think the rule of law is the best protection we have.”


It is perhaps fitting, then, that Petit finds himself opposite Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, in the Cambodian court. The former chief of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal S-21 jail, Duch faces allegations of murder, torture, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in connection with the mistreatment of up to 16,000 prisoners before their deaths. He is the first former Khmer Rouge leader to come before the court, and already the proceedings have sparked Duch’s apology for his atrocities at the jail. But so far, Petit remains skeptical of the move. “The apology is interesting. You don’t see that too often, even in national courts. The genuineness of it, who knows? I’ve seen Duchs all over the world.”


Petit, 48, adds while Duch’s statements are unusual, they haven’t yet revealed the full story of what happened at S-21, key to helping the tribunal achieve its goal of unearthing the truth. “He’s not admitting to having much power or independent authority,” he says, noting he believes the apology is more of a strategic move aimed at sentencing proceedings.


Politics, however, are having an impact on Petit’s job and his bid to get to the truth. Last year, for example, a public spat broke out with his Cambodian co-prosecutor, Chea Leang, over his bid to have the tribunal try more than just the five people so far scheduled to come before it. Leang, he notes, has argued that doing so would endanger peace and stability in Cambodia, a country still bruised by the genocide and whose government has links to the Khmer Rouge. Petit, though, rejects that notion and argues that holding perpetrators responsible for their actions will do more for national unity than letting them off the hook. “Reconciliation begins with accountability,” he says.


Côté, himself now finishing up a UN assignment in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says the Cambodian assignment has left Petit in a situation he has never faced before. “It’s interesting because this is the first job he’s had where he has had to deal with politics,” he says, praising Petit’s handling of the conflict. In fact, Côté notes, the Khmer Rouge tribunal faced intense negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government from the beginning, particularly over who would decide whom to indict. The result was a complicated agreement that would send disputes, such as the current one, to a panel of five judges who, in order to overturn a decision, must make a majority ruling that includes at least one international judge.


But according to Côté, Petit made a deliberate decision to steer clear of disputes, and in fact tried mediation first, until he realized conflict was unavoidable. Since then, Petit has been forceful in making his case. “It shows again his integrity, his honesty,” says Côté. “He’s a guy who’s going to go with the mandate. He’s not going to be influenced. This is what you need in that job.”

Côté says he first saw that integrity when he and Petit stood on opposite sides of the courtroom in Montreal. It was that relationship, then, that led him to steer Petit towards the job in Rwanda, where he was responsible for investigating cases in order to draft indictments and prepare them for court. Then, when Côté went to work for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, he found Petit an obvious choice as a prosecutor there. It was in Sierra Leone Petit feels he had one of his biggest successes in helping move the law forward on treating gender-based offences, such as forced marriages, as distinct crimes against humanity. “I’ve always considered that gender crimes needed to be addressed forcefully and unequivocally,” he says.

But despite such advancements, globetrotting from one international tribunal to another can carry a price, particularly when, as in Petit’s case, you’re a father of two constantly on the move. Petit says he has been privileged to do what he does and credits his “extremely tolerant wife,” as well as the comparably comfortable lifestyle in Cambodia, for making this latest assignment the easiest one — at least on a personal level — so far. Côté, however, points out that Petit’s deep curiosity about other cultures, a trait he showed early on in Rwanda, has made him an ideal person to do the work he does. “Robert’s big quality is certainly that he had a lot of respect for different cultures. He was able to be like a fish in water in Rwanda. It ended up that he married a Rwandan, which is really embracing the culture.”

Petit’s immediate future in Cambodia is uncertain. Currently on a leave of absence from Justice Canada’s crimes against humanity and war crimes section, he is supposed to return to Ottawa this month. Petit isn’t sure how that will play out given his duties in Cambodia but says that whatever happens, he feels he has made a contribution to international justice. “They’re always a compromise,” he says of the tribunals he’s been on. “It’s never as much justice as is deserving or could be done.”


Terry Beitner, his boss in Ottawa says while people like Petit do important work abroad, they also have value in Canada, where officials are developing an approach to prosecuting people accused of war crimes elsewhere who subsequently escape here. “Robert continues in a long tradition of sharing our legal expertise around the world and bringing home lessons learned,” he says. 

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