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Q+A: Toronto S-21 photo exhibition urges vigilance against genocide-curator

by Julie Mollins | @jmollins | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 30 January 2013 13:32 GMT

Photos of prisoners in a 1970s Khmer Rouge jail in Phnom Penh, on show at a Toronto museum, should prompt visitors to be vigilant whenever human rights are under threat, the exhibition curator says

TORONTO (AlertNet) - Black-and-white photographs of 103 inmates of a secret prison in the Cambodian capital propel viewers into a complex confrontation with genocide.

The haunting pictures on show at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto were originally attached to interrogation documents and portray a few of the estimated 14,000 prisoners detained, tortured and killed at S-21, a prison in Phnom Penh, between 1975 and 1979 under Pol Pot’s communist Khmer Rouge regime.

S-21, now the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, was where people linked with the Khmer Rouge but accused of being enemies of the state were held captive. It was discovered after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1978 and captured Phnom Penh in 1979.

“Looking at this chapter in Cambodian history serves as a reminder of what happens when the world community becomes a bystander to genocide,” said curator Carla Rose Shapiro. “The exhibition aims to motivate greater participation by organisations devoted to protecting human rights around the world.”

Under Pol Pot’s reign of terror cities and towns were evacuated and people forced to work in the fields, hundreds of thousands were murdered and many died from hunger, disease and overwork, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 2 million people.

Shapiro shared her views with AlertNet about the exhibition, “Observance and Memorial: Photographs from S-21 Cambodia”, running until March 10, 2013:  

Q: What is the significance of holding this exhibition now?

A: “The most senior living members of the Khmer Rouge are now on trial for crimes committed in Cambodia between April 17, 1975 and January 6, 1979. The charges against them include crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), commonly known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, is a hybrid court established in 2003 by the Royal Government of Cambodia and the United Nations (U.N.). This exhibition provides a context for better understanding these historic proceedings.”

Q: What impact could the exhibition have on the prevention of genocide?

A: “The S-21 portraits remind us of the world’s failure to protect people from mass atrocity in so many places (such as) Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. Although these portraits document a genocide in the past, the fate of these individuals compels us to desire to prevent mass atrocities in the future. The hope (is) that this exhibition will raise awareness and encourage activism to help build domestic and international political will to confront crimes against humanity.  At the very least, we should demand that our elected representatives take a leadership role in the prevention of genocide and other mass atrocities around the world.”

Q: What effect could it have on the 2005 U.N. initiative “responsibility to protect” (R2P)?

A: “‘Responsibility to Protect’ is a norm rather than a law, and it compels nations to prevent mass atrocity crimes. While the case of Cambodia certainly informed the authors of R2P . . . Cambodia isn’t an example where international or multilateral intervention was employed to end a genocide. Rather, it was  the Vietnamese intervention that ended the reign of the Khmer Rouge – and this  intervention was mostly political in nature, but happened to have a humanitarian effect. In more recent interventions, i.e. the post-1990 era, R2P provides an international, multilateral framework for intervention, taking into consideration legal and moral paradigms.

Q: What did this historical event mean for Cambodia?

A: “The Cambodian genocide is a rupture -- an abrupt break from Cambodia's past -- and an event which will colour the psyche of the country for many decades to come. It’s trauma which continues to affect all aspects of society -- how could it not, considering the scale of the devastation? -- (affecting) not just those who lived through 1975-1979, but the next generations too, in part because the country has never come to terms with its past. Until the ECCC, there were no internationally recognised trials of senior Khmer Rouge leaders and, as a result, the country was left with no measure of accountability for the crimes committed and no sense of justice.”

Q: What do the photographs tell us about present-day Cambodia and the world?

A: “As the introductory text panel states in reference to the prisoner portraits, ‘They remind us of humanity’s capacity for malevolence against which we must always remain vigilant.’”

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