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The Prevention and Punishment of the Crimes of Genocide By Youk Chhang
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide stands alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of the key pillars of international human rights law, and for this Human Rights Day in 2022, I want to highlight the critical importance of the responsibility to prevent atrocity crimes, which includes genocide. When atrocity crimes occur, there is an immediate need to stop these atrocious acts, followed by the equally urgent tasks of documenting, investigating, and ultimately prosecuting the perpetrators. However, from 1948 to today, we have not given enough attention to true prevention.
Atrocity crimes do not occur in a vacuum. There is a long chain of events and conditions that precede atrocity crimes. Isolation, segregation, and discrimination frequently, if not always, precede the rationalization of atrocity crimes against a group of people. And before people are discriminated against, they must be dehumanized. The process of dehumanization depends upon rationalizing hatred and distrust, and these processes are precipitated by misinformation, fueled by uninformed biases, stereotypes, and exploitative actors. They are also frequently dependent upon the disintegration, corruption, or lack of development of critical institutions, in particular institutions dedicated to dialogue and education. It is here that we must dedicate our greatest attention.
Since 1948, we have made great strides toward taking actions that interrupt, mitigate, and to a very limited extent, punish the chief perpetrators of atrocity crimes; however, these actions are not preventative but reactive in nature. No atrocities crime trial has ever prevented the next genocide, and no sanctions or punishment can bring back the dead or undo the trauma that extends across multiple generations. Indeed, the trauma of atrocity crimes in the distant past are often the forgotten seeds for the next wave of violence and inhumanity of the future.
If we are to truly adopt strategies that are effective, far reaching, and decisive in preventing atrocity crimes, then our priorities must be re-oriented to the opposite end of the spectrum, where the seeds of the next genocide are cultivated. Our responsibility in complying with foundational human rights documents should be measured not solely by our success at responding, investigating, and prosecuting atrocity crimes, but by our efforts in supporting institutions, initiatives, and actions that have a positive influence in preventing all forms of inhumanity. The most effective strategy at preventing the next genocide is centered on actions and policies that interrupt and reduce the risk of escalation at the earliest stages of inhumanity.
Cambodia recently removed human rights days from public calendars. I think we should reconsider this collective decision. Cambodia has achieved extraordinary success in its genocide education programme, which is the essence of atrocity crimes prevention. And so, to capitalize on this success and Cambodia’s regional and even global leadership in this area, we should hold an annual dialogue on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) closes its doors, there is no better time than now to preserve Cambodia’s leadership and momentum in realizing the core objectives of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
The Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) is proud of the support it has given to the ECCC’s work, which was fundamental to giving victims an opportunity to participate in the justice process and realize some sense of closure from the Khmer Rouge genocide. DC-Cam is also eager to support an annual conference on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As we commemorate this Human Rights Day, we would be mindful to recognize our fundamental human rights documents are not only universal commitments, but also standards for evaluating the kind of world we are leaving for the next generation.
Youk Chhang is Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. The Center dedicating to Justice, Memory, and Healing for survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Photo above: Children at Angkor Wat, 1979. After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime on 7 January 1979, hundreds of thousands of children were left orphaned. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge led Cambodia into tragedy causing the deaths of over 2 million people. Although two millions were killed, five millions more survived to tell their story. The perpetrators of these crimes also survived. Photo: Documentation Center of Cambodia Archives.