Prime Minister Hun Sen’s hard-line opposition to UN proposals for a Khmer Rouge trial so far has had surprisingly few consequences, and those monitoring the issue acknowledge the world seems to have little leverage in persuading him to change.
Talks continue over the shape of a trial, and diplomats and government officials claim there has been unspecified “movement.”
But should the two sides fail to reach a deal, the repercussions remain unclear. Privately in New York and Phnom Penh, those pushing for UN involvement say the international community appears unwilling to go to the mat to force their will on Hun Sen.
Last March, Hun Sen rejected a recommendation by a team of UN experts that an international tribunal be held abroad. Most recently, in New York, government leaders snubbed a UN proposal a trial be held in Cambodia, but be largely UN-controlled.
Only one country—the US—has attempted to explicitly link future aid to a credible tribunal. Other countries have been largely silent on the issue.
At the UN recently and here, some key donors have been decidedly neutral when asked what action their government would take if negotiations were to fail. All maintain that justice is important. But few could point to any tangible sanctions that would arise from a failure of Cambodia to reach compromise to the UN.
If Cambodia, however, goes ahead with its plan to hold a trial with international assistance but dominated by the country’s legal system, at least one diplomat said the international community might decide not to support it.
“It’s a question of credibility, and I think it’s also a question of assistance,” Australian Ambassador Malcolm Leader said last week. “If the international community doesn’t feel they can support the process, there won’t be any assistance for the trial. That’s the problem, and I guess it’s as straightforward as that.”
Most diplomats and negotiators contacted recently were reluctant to discuss on the record the potential consequences of a failure to reach a deal, because few are willing to acknowledge publicly that negotiations on the form of a tribunal may fail.
Much of the impetus for a trial is coming from US and UN officials, who want to establish an international pattern of war crimes tribunals that would discourage egregious human rights violations in the future.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s involvement in negotiations has raised the stakes for the UN. A failure to reach an agreement likely would be viewed as a diplomatic failure by the UN, those following the issue say.
But at the UN and in Washington recently, several officials monitoring Cambodia acknowledged that the crisis in East Timor had overshadowed Cambodia, and the drain on resources and time has relegated the tribunal issue to the sidelines for many.
Even so, there are intangibles that Hun Sen must consider, they noted. Cambodia’s international reputation, although marginally improved, is in tatters after 30 years of civil war, the Khmer Rouge regime and 1997’s factional fighting. That reputation has limited Cambodia’s credibility and influence on the world stage, discouraged investors and tourists, and perhaps affected access to aid money.
Some argue a credible trial would provide Cambodia with an opportunity to repair that image. They point to countries such as South Africa and Guatemala that were frowned upon for human rights abuses.
Once the problems had been solved, the bad reputations and perception of instability remained until both countries took action to deal with their past. South Africa held a truth and reconciliation commission, which revealed details of its repressive past.
And though no one is explicitly linking aid to a UN tribunal, a high-profile attempt to gain justice, combined with other reforms, almost certainly would mean more international aid. “If Hun Sen were to fully cooperate with a tribunal on the Khmer Rouge, it could significantly enhance the reputation and image of the Cambodian government,” said Mike Jendrzejczyk, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch Asia. “If on the other hand, Hun Sen turns down the proposal, he risks further isolating Cambodian internationally. He will be blamed for torpedoing a historic opportunity.”
One US State Department official agreed. “Assistance would necessarily follow. We need some good news from there. Increasingly, donor countries providing assistance are looking to deliver assistance to countries that are truly reforming, truly on the path, not just words. When the G-7 meets, they tend to focus on true reformers.”
Government officials say they can achieve a credible trial without a UN endorsement, though they too still are holding out hope a compromise can be reached. “For the trial to meet an international standard, it doesn’t mean there’s an obligation to have the UN,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
One representative following the issue for an influential UN nation noted that in South Africa and Guatemala, which both have succeeded in rehabilitating their reputations, there was no UN involvement in trials. “Of course it’s something that is a concern for the international community, and important for the image of Cambodia,” he said. “But South Africa and Guatemala chose their own way of dealing with these problems, and they did not have international involvement.”
Opponents of that view argue neither country’s legal system was perceived as politicized and underdeveloped as Cambodia’s. Domestically, some argue a failure to conduct an internationally-credible tribunal could harm Hun Sen politically. “There’s momentum and a will among the people of Cambodia to have international participation,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
which has been collecting evidence against former Khmer Rouge leaders. “There’s momentum and a will among the people of Cambodia to have international participation.”