Turn­ing hor­ror into ac­tion

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Tar­ron Lively

Gre­gory H. Stan­ton has just about seen it all in his fight for hu­man rights — from be­ing shot at by Ku Klux Klans­men in the 1960s to stand­ing in the path of an on­com­ing tank while at­tempt­ing to help Ukraini­ans achieve in­de­pen­dence in the 1980s.

But see­ing first­hand the re­sults of geno­cide in Cam­bo­dia hor­ri­fied him to the point of deep de­pres­sion and spurred him to ded­i­cate his life to end­ing geno­cide and mass killings world­wide.

Mr. Stan­ton, 60, who was work­ing as the Church World Ser­vice/CARE field di­rec­tor in Cam­bo­dia in 1980, said watch­ing as mass graves hold­ing thou­sands of vic­tims of ex­ter­mi­na­tion pris­ons were opened and lis­ten­ing to the sur­vivors’ grim tales were too much for him to take.

“I was ac­tu­ally di­ag­nosed with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der once I re­turned,” Mr. Stan­ton said. “My doc­tor said to me, ‘ De­pres­sion is re­pressed anger. What are you an­gry about?’

“I said I was an­gry at the [com­mu­nist] Kh­mer Rouge and the in­jus­tice in Cam­bo­dia,” he said. “They have got­ten away with mass mur­der — again. And he said, ‘Well, what are you go­ing to do about it?’ That’s when I knew I had to start the Cam­bo­dian Geno­cide Project.”

Since then, Mr. Stan­ton has bat­tled var­i­ous in­stances of geno­cide. In 1999, he founded Geno­cide Watch, an in­ter­na­tional group that aims to pre­vent and pun­ish geno­cide and other forms of mass killings.

As pres­i­dent of the group, the McLean, Va. res­i­dent is be­ing awarded the Found­ing Spirit Award for Free­dom, which is given to those who have made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to the cause of free­dom around the world.

Mr. Stan­ton’s work to raise aware­ness and in­flu­ence pub­lic pol­icy on geno­cide is ground­break­ing and is re­sound­ing around the world.

“I was al­ways strongly op­posed to com­mu­nism,” Mr. Stan­ton said. “It’s the sin­gle great­est threat to hu­man rights on the planet.”

Mr. Stan­ton, the James Farmer pro­fes­sor of hu­man rights at the Univer­sity of Mary Wash­ing­ton in Fred­er­icks­burg, Va., is a dis­tant rel­a­tive of women’s suf­frage ac­tivist El­iz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton. He said his par­ents in­stilled in him, vir­tu­ally since his birth, a drive to fight for hu­man rights.

While grow­ing up in Stra­tor, Ill. — which was heav­ily seg­re­gated at the time — he watched his fa­ther stand up for blacks in the town.

“My fa­ther ac­tu­ally con­vinced the man­ager of the largest fac­tory in town, a mem­ber of his church, to em­ploy African-Amer­i­cans for work be­sides be­ing a jan­i­tor,” Mr. Stan­ton said. “He was a great be­liever in mak­ing peo­ple do what was right be­cause it was right, and not just be­cause they were forced to by law.

“It wasn’t al­ways easy,” he said. “Once we had a brick thrown through our front win­dow af­ter he spoke out against Joseph McCarthy and his pol­i­tics of char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion. But it didn’t stop him. He was fear­less.”

Mr. Stan­ton en­coun­tered his own share of ad­ver­sity through­out the years. As a teen work­ing with a group reg­is­ter­ing vot­ers in Mis­sis­sippi in 1966, the Ku Klux Klan shot at the house in which the group was stay­ing, wound­ing two of Mr. Stan­ton’s friends.

“Even af­ter be­ing in places like Cam­bo­dia and Rwanda, I’d say [Mis­sis­sippi in the mid-1960s] is still the most dan­ger­ous place I’ve ever worked,” he said.

Undeterred, he at­tended Ober­lin Col­lege, the alma mater of his par­ents, his wife and his brothers. “I’m proud that I went there, as it was the first col­lege in the world that ad­mit­ted blacks and women,” he said.

Mr. Stan­ton joined the Peace Corps af­ter col­lege, serv­ing in the Ivory Coast. Af­ter at­tend­ing Har­vard Di­vin­ity School, he com­pleted doc­tor­ate work in cul­tural an­thro­pol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Chicago be­fore he en­rolled at Yale Law School.

It was dur­ing his time at Yale that he was se­lected by Church World Ser­vice, the re­lief arm of the Na­tional Coun­cil of Churches, to be­come the field di­rec­tor in Cam­bo­dia for sev­eral Amer­i­can re­lief groups.

His col­lege room­mate, who was in charge of the Church World Ser­vice pro­gram in New York, was im­pressed by Mr. Stan­ton’s work in the Ivory Coast and asked him to set up a re­lief and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram in Phnom Penh.

He turned down the of­fer but pon­dered the de­ci­sion six weeks later when his room­mate’s sec­ond choice wasn’t tran­spir­ing.

“I just prayed about it,” Mr. Stan­ton said. “I don’t hear voices or see burn­ing bushes, but it was clear that this is what I was meant to do. I just feel it was my des­tiny.”

It was then that he saw the hor­rors of the geno­cide in Cam­bo­dia.

“I was one of the first Western­ers to see the mass grave be­ing opened in Cho­eng Ek,” he said. “The Kh­mer Rouge had buried more than 7,000 peo­ple. To see that, to hear sto­ries about en­tire fam­i­lies be­ing killed, thou­sands be­ing beaten to death and set on fire. [. . . ] It was har­row­ing.”

Upon his re­turn to the United States in 1981, he founded the Cam­bo­dian Geno­cide Project, of which he also serves as di­rec­tor.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion doc­u­mented the atroc­i­ties and pre­sented them to the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion of Jurists in Geneva, call­ing for the lead­ers of Kh­mer Rouge to be tried by the In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice for geno­cide.

Af­ter decades of le­gal wran­gling and un­wa­ver­ing ef­fort by Mr. Stan­ton and oth­ers, the Cam­bo­dian Na­tional As­sem­bly passed the leg­is­la­tion to es­tab­lish a tri­bunal for Kh­mer Rouge.

“I fully ex­pect tri­als to be­gin some­time next year,” he said. “I feel so blessed that God has given me th­ese ex­tra years to see jus­tice done.”

Mean­while, Mr. Stan­ton has been a law pro­fes­sor at Wash­ing­ton and Lee Univer­sity, Amer­i­can Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Swazi­land. He has con­tin­ued to fight geno­cide in places such as Rwanda and Su­dan, even while bat­tling can­cer five years ago.

De­spite all he has ac­com­plished in Cam­bo­dia and else­where, he re­mains hum­ble about his ex­em­plary work.

“There are an aw­ful lot of peo­ple in Cam­bo­dia that played a part,” he said. “The suc­cess or fail­ure of this project didn’t de­pend upon me. This isn’t my work, this is God’s work.”

Peter Lockley / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Dr. Gre­gory Stan­ton

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