The long-stalled talks on a tribunal for former Khmer Rouge leaders appear likely to start again after fresh remarks from the office of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggest he will resume negotiations if UN member states support him.
UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said the decision follows a series of behind-the-scenes communications with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has sent two letters and made a telephone call to Annan in recent months asking for the UN to return.
“In these communications the Secretary-General made it clear that in order for him to engage in further negotiations, he needs a clear mandate from either the General Assembly or the Security Council,” Eckhard said in comments distributed by the UN.
“If such a mandate were given, the Secretary-General would be prepared to engage in further talks with the government in order to fulfill the mandate.
The UN withdrew from the talks Feb 8 over jurisdictional concerns.
Annan mailed his second letter to Hun Sen Tuesday, Eckhard said.
Cambodian officials were unwilling to share the contents of the letter, but a member of the government’s task force for negotiating with the UN said a Cambodian delegation would be prepared to go to New York.
Om Yienteng, adviser to Hun Sen, said neither he nor task force chief Minister of Cabinet Sok An had read the letters from Annan, but they were prepared to push for the resumption of talks.
“We have not yet lost our hope to cooperate with the UN secretariat,” Om Yienteng said.
National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, speaking to reporters outside the Assembly Wednesday, called the development “a way out.”
“I think this is a door opening after the deadlock,” he said. He said some members of the UN Security Council may not support a Khmer Rouge tribunal, however, a remark likely directed at China, the only member of the council that has publicly opposed international involvement in a tribunal.
China, one of five members of the 15-member council with veto authority, threatened in March 1999 to exercise its veto to block a Security Council resolution calling for an ad hoc tribunal outside of Cambodia.
A Chinese embassy official in Phnom Penh said Wednesday that his personal view is that the Khmer Rouge tribunal is an internal affair of Cambodia that does not require the involvement of the Security Council.
“The Khmer Rouge, it seems to me, is not as serious as the bigger problems related to stability and peace in the region. Personally, I don’t think it is proper for the Security Council to discuss this issue,” said the official.
He added that he believes the Chinese would respect any decision made by the Cambodian government, however.
China was closely allied with the Khmer Rouge, and some have suggested China does not want to subject its Khmer Rouge ties to the international scrutiny of a UN-assisted tribunal.
The General Assembly, on the other hand, has routinely voted in favor of supporting a Khmer Rouge tribunal, according to one senior Phnom Penh diplomat.
“I don’t know whether a mandate is necessary,” said Verghese Mathews, Singapore’s ambassador to Cambodia. “I thought that every year the UN did have a mandate in support of the trial. But that aside, at least suddenly it has become positive again. It opens up avenues on both sides. I think it’s good news.”
Since February, US and Japanese officials have publicly said that talks continued thanks to third parties who were ferrying messages back and forth between the Cambodian government and Annan.
On Wednesday, Japanese Ambassador Gotaro Ogawa said other countries should now join the effort in support of the tribunal.
“Although there are some conditions to fulfill, the UN will now consider exploring the possibility of coming back to the negotiations. I think it should be done through the cooperation of many countries, including the Cambodian government and others.”
The tribunal talks dragged on for three years of negotiations, nearly dying twice before concessions were made at the last minute to keep the talks alive. At various points in the talks, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said Cambodia would never allow international control of a trial.
The National Assembly passed the law establishing the Khmer Rouge tribunal more than a year ago. It was the language of that law that concerned Hans Corell, the UN’s director of the Office of Legal Affairs, ultimately leading to the February suspension.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said Cambodia must now prove to the international community that it is serious about bringing the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.
“I believe no one on Earth supports the Khmer Rouge but China. So the majority, including the survivors and many perpetrators, are in favor of seeing justice done.”
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)