On May 20, 2019, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation (AIPR) recognizes the annual Day of Remembrance for the Cambodian Genocide. In one of the most fatal genocides of the 20th century, approximately 1.7 million individuals – over 20% of the Cambodian population – lost their lives to the brutality that took place between 1975 and 1979. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge regime carried out a series of atrocities that included mass executions, displacement, forced labor, and exposure to starvation and disease. Marked by the date on which the genocide began more than four decades ago, the annual commemorative date serves to recognize the victims and their families through memorial events and reenactments, and also aids in facilitating national reconciliation and memory processes.
In 2001, the Cambodian National Assembly passed legislation to create the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (ECCC). The country subsequently entered into an arrangement with the United Nations in order to facilitate international support for the ECCC’s proceedings. In November of 2018, the ECCC provided two final convictions before concluding its mandate.
Nuon Chea, 92, and Khieu Samphan, 87, two of the oldest surviving Khmer Rouge officials, were found guilty of the crime of genocide for crimes taking place between 1974 and 1975. Both Chea and Samphan were sentenced to life in prison. Responding to the verdict, United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said that “this conviction is a good day for justice… It demonstrates that justice will prevail, and that impunity should never be accepted for genocide and other atrocity crimes.” He also stressed the importance of criminal justice efforts to the prevention of genocide at both the domestic and international levels:
While criminal accountability is foremost a tool to provide justice and redress to victims, it also has an important preventative function as a deterrent as well as to help societies in reconciliation efforts and to deal with the past. At a time when we are witnessing a dangerous disregard for fundamental rights and international legal norms and standards in many parts of the world, this decision sends a strong message, in the region and globally, to those who commit, incite or condone atrocity crimes that sooner or later they will be held accountable.
On the 2019 Day of Remembrance for the Cambodian Genocide, the Auschwitz Institute remembers the incredible number of lives claimed by the Genocide and reaffirms the importance of our shared responsibility for preventing future genocides and other mass atrocities. AIPR also acknowledges the vital importance of processes for national and international criminal justice as well as other measures for truth, justice, and memory for downstream — or post-conflict — prevention. It is only through a comprehensive defense of fundamental human rights, the preservation of the rule of law, and full accountability for grave international crimes that “Never Again” can be made a reality.