Turning horror into action
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.”
Dr. Gregory Stanton