Cataloger of Khmer Rouge Crimes Wins Prestigious Human Rights Award

Chang Youk, director of DC-Cam, talks to VOA Khmer about national reconciliation at his office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 08th, 2016. (Neou Vannarin/VOA Khmer)

Youk Chhang founded DC-Cam and has led the organization since 1995, creating a national genocide education program.

The director of the Documentation Center for Cambodia (DC-Cam), Youk Chhang, who has devoted much of his life preserving information about Khmer Rouge atrocities, has won the Judith Lee Stronach Human Rights Award.

Chhang will head to San Francisco in May to receive the award from the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA).

Like millions of his fellow Cambodians, Chhang was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. He fled to the United States as a refugee, but memories of the suffering he endured brought him back to his homeland in the early 1990s.

He founded DC-Cam and has led the organization since 1995, creating a national genocide education program.

Nushin Sarkarati, a senior attorney at CJA, said that without Chhang’s dedication there would be little justice for the victims and survivors.

“Without the work that he and DC-Cam and other human rights defenders in Cambodia did on the ground to preserve the evidence of this crime, there would be no justice today for the victims in Cambodia or the victims of the Khmer Rouge, specifically.”

In this photo taken on Aug. 20, 2012, Director of Documentation Center of Cambodia, Youk Chhang arranges photos, a part of about a thousand of newly-discovered photo collection of detainees at the former Khmer Rouge main prison S-21, in his office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Beth Van Schaack, a Stanford law professor who advises DC-Cam, said the group’s orientation towards victims made Chhang a natural choice for the award.

“What CJA really admires about DC-Cam is it also has a very victim centered approach, working-hard to help Cambodian victims, experience justice before the ECCC [Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia] and DC-Cam has become in many ways a model for other documentation centers around the world that are collecting information that can be submitted to justice processes where human rights are concerned,” she said.

Nate Thayer, a journalist who has reported on Cambodia for some three decades, said without Chhang’s work, the Khmer Rouge perpetrators would have gotten away with their crimes.

“Youk Chhang was a one-man army fighting for justice for those who suffered in Cambodia and his personal passion and devotion bringing those who responsible for mass murder to justice, to face the music, to answer for their crime.”

Peter Maguire, a law professor and an author of “Facing Death in Cambodia,” called Chhang a “Cambodian national treasure” whose efforts bring more truth and reconciliation to the Cambodian people than the combined efforts of the United Nations and ECCC.

Youk Chhang, a leading Cambodian genocide researcher, shows a copy of the Cambodian version of a Khmer Rouge history textbook to teachers in Takeo province, July 3, 2012.

“I would say that Youk Chhang is nothing less than a Cambodian national treasure, and that he plays the key role in Cambodians taking possession of their history,” he said.

Neth Pheaktra, ECCC spokesman, told VOA Khmer that DC-Cam deserved the award as it had uncovered valuable evidence that could be used at the court.

“The work that DC-Cam has done helps the ECCC save time in finding evidence by ourselves, and it shows us the way, brings us information as well as some historical documents we needed for the trials.”

The annual award, which launched in 2007, is named after the late human rights activist Judith Lee Stronach. The award is given annually to an individual or an organization which has made an outstanding contribution to the movement for global justice, according to CJA.

Chhang is currently working on developing the Sleuk Rith Institute, a permanent hub for genocide studies in Asia based in Phnom Penh.