The S-21 Archive and Cold War Human Rights

By Thy Phu Posted May 23, 2013

Selections from the S-21 Photo Archive.

Medium s21 children

Although these haunting photos of the genocide were first discovered in 1978, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that spectators in the West truly paid attention to them. This shift from a politics of disregard to an ethics of attention is sudden, striking, and perplexing.

That the photos should garner greater attention in the 1990s is hardly coincidental. After all, this period marks the end of the Cold War and is all the more important for a palpable swing in how the West championed human rights: instead of focusing on rescue and resettlement of refugees—the dominant concern of the late 1970s and 1980s—this was an era of repatriation.  The S-21 photos have been looked at, and, even more tellingly overlooked, during an extended period when human rights discourse served as part of an ideological arsenal in the Cold War skirmish for power and influence in Southeast Asia. While many viewers assume these perpetrator photos advocate on behalf of human rights, their circulation history suggests otherwise.

In the early 1990s, Congress earmarked $1 million for the Office of Cambodian Investigation, which in turn awarded a grant of $500,000 to the CGP, newly established at Yale University. This shift in U.S. priorities is remarkable not because it took so long, but that it should come at the very time that so-called compassion fatigue was most acute. The cause that Americans had long championed, the refugee crisis, was one that they abandoned at the same time that they adopted another issue. Notably, in 1991 admissions of Cambodian refugees dropped dramatically for the first time since the Vietnamese invasion. Although the two causes, the refugee crisis and justice for genocide, are fundamentally related, these tellingly timed decisions split them apart.

It’s tempting to credit the portraits and the digitalization of the archive for the surge of support for the war crimes tribunal that culminated a decade later with the establishment of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Yet the reverse might be closer to the truth. The international community’s deepening commitment to the cause of justice set the stage for the spotlight to shine with unprecedented brightness on the S-21 photos.