Despite worries a new draft mandate ordering the UN to reopen talks for a Khmer Rouge tribunal was not strong enough to protect international standards of justice, the proposal cleared its first hurdle overnight Thursday and now is set for final approval in the UN’s General Assembly.
After beating back a Canadian-led attempt to delay the vote until member states could talk with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN’s Third Committee passed the draft mandate, with 123 nations voting in favor, zero opposing and 37 nations abstaining, according to a release from the UN.
The unanimous vote, with China joining the majority, essentially sets up a rubber-stamp approval in the General Assembly. If the mandate passes there, Annan will have 90 days to talk with the Cambodians and resume the negotiations.
Nearly five years of talks to establish a mixed tribunal to try the handful of former Khmer Rouge leaders came to a halt in February, when the UN pulled out of talks, saying the Cambodians could not guarantee the independence of their judges and that they had refused to bow to UN authority.
The new draft mandate comes at Annan’s request. The 2001 Nobel laureate has said he would think about restarting the talks if either the UN Security Council or its General Assembly gave him a new mandate.
Many countries, including Australia, the UK, the US and Germany were worried that the language of the draft passed Wednesday in New York was too soft on Cambodia and caved in to Cambodian demands it hold supremacy over the tribunal. Germany, Britain and Canada were among the abstentions.
“We found the changes to weaken the text, but we were not prepared to vote against it,” Australian Ambassador to the UN John Dauth was quoted as saying by The New York Times.
Stephen Heder, a Cambodia scholar at the University of London, also criticized the resolution.
“[It] does not even ask the Cambodian government to live up to the very minimum international standard for a fair trial, much less build in guarantees that those standards will be adhered to,” he told The New York Times.
But the tribunal, while not ideal, is perhaps the last, best hope for victims of the Khmer Rouge regime to find justice, some diplomats and observers have said.
“We have been and continue to be in favor of a Khmer Rouge tribunal,” US Embassy spokeswoman Heide Bronke said Thursday.
Members of the Cambodian government were thrilled with the news from New York.
“We welcome this and we are ready to receive the delegation from Kofi Annan’s side to continue to finalize the articles of cooperation,” said Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Wednesday’s UN vote almost didn’t happen. As the deadline for getting items on to the General Assembly’s agenda ticked away, Australia—which had been chairing a committee of 26 “interested nations” scrambling to bring the UN back to the table—refused to co-sponsor a draft mandate in part because Cambodia, too, refused to co-sign.
The US and Australia—both of whom voted for the draft mandate—publicly announced they were disappointed Cambodia hadn’t co-sponsored the proposal.
“We regret the government didn’t give a straight-forward endorsement,” Bronke said.
For some activists, however, the draft mandate is not a compromise—it’s a betrayal. On Tuesday, Amnesty International criticized the draft and called for the UN to start from scratch.
None of the worries of the last week had been settled by the Third Committee’s vote, veteran human rights activist Kek Galabru said Thursday.
“I have mixed feelings. I’m happy if the UN can come back, because we need UN credibility, but I want the UN to have…strong international standards,” she said.
“It’s better to have no tribunal than to have a weak tribunal. Why should Cambodia accept something cheap?” she asked. “We don’t deserve that. We deserve a tribunal, but we deserve a credible tribunal.”
All of that talk comes way too soon, Om Yentieng said.
“It’s not fair to talk like that. This is only just the green light that allows us to restart the negotiations between Cambodia and the UN,” he said.