2021 Cambodian National Day of Remembrance

Today, May 20, 2021, the Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities (AIPG) marks the annual National Day of Remembrance for the Cambodian Genocide. Beginning on this day in 1975, the country’s Khmer Rouge government, under the leadership of Pol Pot, carried out a series of atrocities that included mass executions, displacement, forced labor, and exposure to starvation and disease. During the brutality that took place between 1975 and 1979, approximately 1.7 million individuals – over 20% of the Cambodian population – lost their lives. As a result, the Cambodian Genocide is widely regarded as one of the most deadly atrocities of the 20th century.

This annual commemorative date, first observed in 1984, was originally conceived as a “Day of Hate” or “Day of Rage,” during which Cambodians were encouraged to stage re-enactments of genocidal violence and burn effigies of Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leadership. While the tradition of public re-enactments has continued in recent years, in 2018, the commemorative date was officially renamed as the National Day of Remembrance and made a public holiday. Additionally, the official designation established the opportunity provided by the commemorative date to “respect and pray for the victims who passed away from Democratic Kampuchea regime”.

In 2001, the Cambodian National Assembly adopted legislation establishing 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 convicted senior Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan of genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. This follows a 2014 conviction against both men of crimes against humanity in a parallel ECCC process, as well as the 2010 conviction of Kaing Guek Eav, also for crimes against humanity. A 2019 Fact Sheet, containing a brief institutional timeline, information on defendants, and an overview of the Court’s operations can be found here.

Following the 2018 decision, the Former United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, expressed his support, saying 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 explained:

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 today’s annual Day of Remembrance, the Auschwitz Institute remembers the incredible number of lives claimed by the Cambodian Genocide and reaffirms the urgency of the international community’s shared responsibility to prevent future genocides and other mass atrocities. Echoing the words of Former Special Adviser Dieng, AIPG underscores the multifaceted importance of processes for legal accountability to prevention efforts around the world. It is only through ending impunity and ensuring respect for fundamental human rights and the Rule of Law that “Never Again” can be made a reality.