Introduction to Cambodian Genocide Program

The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21% of the country’s population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. As in the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide, the Soviet Union under Stalin, Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, and more recently in East Timor, Guatemala, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot combined extremist ideology with ethnic animosity and a diabolical disregard for human life to produce repression, misery, and murder on a massive scale. In March 2003, the United Nations signed an agreement with Cambodia to establish a tribunal to bring the surviving senior Khmer Rouge leaders to justice. By December 2007, five had been jailed and charged for crimes against humanity and war crimes by the mixed UN/Cambodia tribunal in Phnom Penh.

In December 1994, the Cambodian Genocide Program (CGP) at Yale University won an initial grant of $499,000 from the Office of Cambodian Genocide Investigations, Bureau of East Asia and the Pacific, U.S. Department of State. In 1995-96 the Australian and Netherlands governments and the Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. provided complementary funding. In 1997, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor awarded the CGP another grant of $1 million, and in 1999, a further $150,000.

In January 1995, the CGP established the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in Phnom Penh, and immediately began the work of documenting the mass killings in Cambodia during the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime headed by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979. Besides training and equipping the Cambodian staff of the Documentation Center, the CGP set out to

1) collect, study, and preserve all extant information about that period in Cambodian history, 
2) make this information available to a court or tribunal willing to prosecute surviving Cambodian war criminals and genocide suspects, and 
3) generate a critical, analytic understanding of genocide which can be marshaled in the prevention of political and ethnic violence against populations elsewhere in the world.

For the past twelve years, the Cambodian Genocide Program has advanced these goals through a variety of activities which fall into four categories: documentation, preservation, research, and training.

The Cambodian Genocide Program began this work in 1994, an auspicious moment in the Cambodian political landscape, as certain obstacles which previously stood in the way of bringing closure to the genocide had been removed. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. lifted its diplomatic and economic embargo on Cambodia, opening up the international flow of trade in ideas and information, as well as goods. The U.N. mission that oversaw democratic elections in Cambodia in 1993 resulted in the political isolation and outlawing of the Khmer Rouge, who remained armed, vocal, and to some, a credible political party. Finally, in 1994 the U.S. Congress passed the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act, committing the American government to the pursuit of justice for the victims of the genocide. With the Cambodian government and the international community now in harmony for the first time on the subject of the genocide, the Cambodian Genocide Program’s agenda was not only well supported both within and outside Cambodia, but also very timely.

In 1997 the Cambodian Government requested United Nations assistance in achieving legal accountability for the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period. The next year the UN Secretary-General commissioned a legal advisory body, the Group of Experts on Cambodia, which called in 1999 for establishment of an international tribunal to judge the genocide and other Khmer Rouge crimes. After several years of negotiations with Cambodia on the nature of such a court, the UN withdrew from the process in February 2002, but then renewed its involvement by a resolution of the UN Third Committee in November 2002.

Harnessing resources which represent a quarter century of careful scholarship at a critical juncture in Cambodian and international politics, the Cambodian Genocide Program has integrated a vast range of source materials to illuminate the social and political environment in which over one fifth of all Cambodians died. The detailed picture of the Cambodian genocide which is emerging is not only comprehensive and exhaustively corroborated, but is also internationally accessible here to Cambodians, foreign scholars, prosecutors and jurists, especially in the CGP’s Cambodian Genocide Data Bases, which include approximately 28,000 individual records. The CGP’s website received 825,707 ‘hits’ from November 11, 2001 to November 30, 2003, averaging approximately 7,700 per week. From December 10, 2006, to December 14, 2008, the CGP site received 1,026,351 hits, including 291,445 views of the CGP homepage. 

Continued work by the CGP and its now independent offshoot, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, funded by the CGP from 1995 to 2001, has not only filled a substantial gap in the available scholarly resources on the Cambodian genocide, but will also serve as a significant prototype for the future study of genocidal activity. Not least, it was of great assistance to the UN Group of Experts on Cambodia, as it has been to the UN-sponsored, mixed national-international tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The powerful tools that the CGP has assembled in the interests of documentation and justice, both in Cambodia and around the world, represent an unprecedented combination of scholarship, state-of-the-art technology, documentation and legal training, and international legal instruments to help bring closure to one of the worst human disasters of the 20th century. The comparative Genocide Studies Program, established at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies in January 1998, applies the CGP’s experience, pursuing interdisciplinary research and documentation training on other modern tragedies, from the Holocaust to Rwanda to East Timor, and where appropriate, assists the victims’ search for legal accountability.

in Khmer