The Cambodian government and the UN remain in loose contact with each other on a tribunal for the former leadership of the Khmer Rouge through third parties who are ferrying messages back and forth, said US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, who spoke on Thursday hours before he retired from his post and left the country.
Wiedemann said he would not identify the messengers, due to the sensitivity of the talks, but added that diplomats continue to press for a resumption of negotiations that were halted Feb 8 with the UN’s decision to pull out of Khmer Rouge trial discussions.
“My extremely firm belief is that they were never closer than they were at the time that the UN announced its unilateral decision to pull out,” he said. “The job was just about done. I think the door does in fact remain open. A number of member states continue to work on seeking to get the two sides to resume and to finish up.”
UN Undersecretary-General for Legal Affairs Hans Corell, meanwhile, said in an e-mail Thursday that the UN remains firmly behind its decision to back away from a trial.
Corell added that the Financial Times newspaper made “a serious error” when it reported he made the decision to end the tribunal negotiations. “I certainly did not!” Corell wrote. “Such an important decision is made by the secretary-general [Kofi Annan], and his decision in this case is firm.”
Wiedemann said the negotiations had largely succeeded in creating the conditions for a credible tribunal and that the UN’s pullout was sudden and unnecessary.
“The [Cambodian] law was essentially complete and fully known to the UN Office of Legal Affairs [Corell’s office]. I’m not saying they were delighted with it, but they had accepted it in principle,” he said.
The outbreak of the US-led war on terror and a host of major tribunals elsewhere may have played a role in the UN’s decision, Wiedemann said. Negotiations for a tribunal in Sierra Leone, in particular, may have diverted attention from the Khmer Rouge talks.
“I think what had a major impact was the secretariat and the legal affairs office, in the months when they might have been talking to Cambodians, [were] spending most of their time talking [about] the Sierra Leone tribunal. Perhaps they were just exhausted by that experience.
“I would speculate that they were not anxious to take on another very complicated inter-national tribunal,” he said.
Corell’s statement of continued UN resolve this week comes just days after Prime Minister Hun Sen told The Associated Press that Cambodia is willing to “conduct a tribunal without the participation of the United Nations.”
Hun Sen said in March that he would give the UN three months to re-enter negotiations with Cambodia. After that, the government will look into other ways to prosecute former Khmer Rouge leaders, according to the premier.
Annan and Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong will be in East Timor Sunday for that country’s independence celebrations. Hun Sen will not attend, discouraging speculation that the premier and the UN chief would meet to discuss the tribunal.
The UN’s pullout, announced Feb 8 at a news conference in New York, was ordered because the UN believed the Cambodian tribunal law “would not guarantee the independence, impartiality and objectivity” of the court, Corell said at the time.
Wiedemann said Thursday that Corell’s statement about the collapse of the talks “did not square with reality.”
“He turned facts on their head,” Wiedemann said, adding that the Cambodians only wanted Cambodian law to be treated equally with the Articles of Cooperation—an agreement that was to supplement the Cambodian law, and handle a number of technical issues related to the trial—and did not want the two bodies of law to conflict.
“Actually it was Corell who had specifically asked that the UN law be legally supreme to the Cambodian law,” Wiedemann said.
Wiedemann said that when the negotiations began in earnest three years ago, the two sides faced what was thought to be an insurmountable obstacle: Each side’s insistence on controlling the court through selection of judges and indictments.
Two concessions were made along the course of the negotiations that eased both problems, first with the UN allowing the Cambodians to appoint the majority of the tribunal’s judges, and then with the Cambodians conceding the power of indictment to the UN, Wiedemann said.
He said the UN should have come to Cambodia to negotiate the Articles of Cooperation face-to-face. Instead, a series of letters were exchanged and a meeting was never arranged.
“Instead of having a meeting, the UN just declared an end to the whole enterprise,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Matt Reed)