Editor’s note: Youk Chhang is the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. His organization, which has for many years documented the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, has been key to the functioning of the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Below is an essay he wrote recently to mark international holocaust memorial Day.
This month is the commemoration of the international holocaust memorial day. It is a topic of grave importance for our world. We must remember not to abandon it.
The genocide perpetrated against European Jews and other innocent ethnic groups by the world-class criminals who conceived and implemented the Third Reich introduced the world to a new model of extreme organizational efficiency in the science of systematically destroying human lives. Although the annuls of history are littered with horrific examples of genocidal and mass atrocity campaigns by one group of persons against others, the efficiency models designed and executed by the Nazi regime shocked the collective conscience of human kind.
(The Sleuk Rith Institute - a permanent Documentation Center of Cambodia - plans to build a dynamic building in Phnom Penh to house an international center and museum and school to increase awareness about genocide and develop ways to prevent it globally. This video depicts the architectural vision, courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.)
As has been the case in other genocidal and mass atrocity campaigns, the international community’s track record of recognizing, acknowledging and responding to the evil perpetuated by them remains a dismal one. In almost all instances, particularly in the past 100 years, our scorecard of timely and consequential intervention has been abysmally slow and ineffective. The upshot of this collective paralysis on the part of the international community has resulted in much more significant violence, torture, suffering, and loss of life than should have occurred. Indeed, this ongoing failure to organize and implement a timely and effective response is being repeated as I speak in the killing streets of Syria. There, the international community, notwithstanding its immense resources, continues by default to enable mass atrocities by human beings against human beings.
Mindful of history’s victims, in Cambodia, we have embarked with the assistance of our government and others on an historic mission not only to acknowledge what they have forfeited through no choice of their own. We recently initiated a project to establish a new Sleuk Rith Institute (SRI) in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, a bold and ambitious project to reconcile the destructive legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime’s four-year reign of terror with Cambodia’s centuries-long legacy of exquisite cultural heritage. Focusing on the timeless values of justice, memory and healing, SRI will merge the functions of a museum of memory, a research center and graduate school focused on atrocity crimes and a Khmer Rouge document archive and research library with a media center. Working with experts at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and universities worldwide, we will develop a new graduate school curriculum. It will address, among other topics, strategies the international community might deploy to more promptly recognize the symptomatic indicators of brewing hotbeds of atrocity crimes, and interventions that short-circuit both their destructive impact and sustainability. I invite all of you to join us in that effort.
And I write today to honor and to respect the lost lives and the unrealized memories of the victims not only of the Holocaust but the tens of millions of others. I seek here and elsewhere today to commemorate their loss and acknowledge their innocence.
Youk Chhang is the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and survivor of the Cambodian Genocide. His organization, which has for many years documented the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, has been key to the functioning of the Khmer Rouge tribunal.