In an address to the “Cambodia's Future Without Genocide, Protecting and Responding through Education and Health Care" conference, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, UN undersecretary-general and special adviser on the prevention of genocide, underscored the critical importance of learning from history to prevent future atrocities.

Speaking to the attendees of day one of the function on May 20, Nderitu highlighted the enduring impact of the Khmer Rouge regime and the vital steps Cambodia is taking to ensure such horrors are never repeated.

“What happened here in Cambodia has provided us with many tough lessons. It has also provided us with a wealth of information,” she said.

The Khmer Rouge period remains a stark reminder of the devastating consequences of genocide. 

During her speech, Nderitu acknowledged Cambodia's early commitment to the 1948 Genocide Convention, yet lamented the global community's failure to uphold the convention’s promise of "Never Again”. 

“The horrific crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period had and continue to have a devastating impact on victims and survivors as well as society at large,” explained Nderitu.

Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the UN undersecretary-general and special adviser on the prevention of genocide (next to the Minister of Information, Neth Pheaktra) at the Conference on The Future of Cambodia without Genocide on May 20. Supplied

Drawing parallels with other historical genocides, including those in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina, she emphasised the necessity of recognizing and addressing early warning signs. 

“Genocide is a process, one that involves planning, steps, policies, and bureaucratic responsibilities. At every stage, there are opportunities for prevention,” she added.

The conference's focus on education and healthcare as pillars of prevention is rooted in these lessons. 

By integrating genocide education into the national curriculum, Cambodia aims to cultivate a generation that is aware of the past and committed to preventing future atrocities. 

Nderitu noted that this educational initiative is supported by collaborations with organisations like the Documentation Center for Cambodia (DC-Cam), which provides invaluable resources and training for teachers.

“Cambodia has taken important steps in prioritising memorialisation, education, and learning about genocide and related crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period," she said.

The role of healthcare, particularly mental health services, is equally crucial. The trauma inflicted by the Khmer Rouge has left deep psychological scars, according to the UN expert.

Comprehensive healthcare, including mental health support, is essential for helping survivors and their descendants heal. 

Addressing these needs not only aids individual recovery but also strengthens societal resilience against the seeds of future violence, she said.

“Had it not been for their testimonies, reliving their trauma, accountability might not have been possible. They spearheaded efforts around education and memorialization, ensuring that the past is not forgotten,” she added, in reference to the efforts of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

Nderitu also highlighted the ongoing efforts of the UN Office on Genocide Prevention to monitor and address risks globally. 

The collaboration between Cambodia and international bodies exemplifies the importance of collective action in genocide prevention, she explained. Through education and healthcare reforms, Cambodia is setting a precedent for other nations grappling with similar histories.

“Prevention cannot begin when populations are facing an imminent risk of violence. Rather, preventive action has to be taken early, to address the possible causes of tensions between groups well before these tensions escalate,” she added.

Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) director Youk Chhang (left) and Alice Wairimu Nderitu at the “Queen Mother Library”. Supplied

DC-Cam director Youk Chhang explained that Cambodia has an international heritage through two well-known historical periods and symbols which are reminiscent of both periods.

He noted that the most revered symbol is the temple of Angkor Wat, built by the kings of the Khmer Empire, which once stretched from modern-day Malaysia to Southern China. Millions of people bear witness to the legacy of the Cambodian people. 

Regrettably, the second significant historical period was the genocidal tragedy that occurred later, in the modern era.

“For the new generation, the Queen Mother Library is a symbol of the end of the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and serves as an educational resource for Cambodia's return to its rightful position on the international stage," said Chhang, who appealed for support for the project from Prime Minister Hun Manet.

Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) director Youk Chhang (left) explains the functions of the centre to the UN’s Alice Wairimu Nderitu at the “Queen Mother Library”. Supplied

The library, located at DC-Cam’s headquarters, is home to the centre’s extensive archives.

As the conference concluded, Nderitu expressed optimism about Cambodia's future. By learning from the past and implementing robust educational and healthcare strategies, the country is paving the way for a future free from the shadow of genocide. 

She believed that the commitment of the Cambodian government and its partners to these initiatives reflects a broader dedication to human rights and global peace.