The UN’s top human rights envoy for Cambodia said he is optimistic an agreement can be reached with the government to try Khmer Rouge leaders.
Thomas Hammarberg, who arrived Saturday in Phnom Penh, said the UN is willing to compromise with Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure the formation of a war crimes tribunal.
Last week Hun Sen blasted a draft UN plan that called for a majority of international judges on the tribunal, and for the pre-trial detention of the former leaders who would stand trial. He said he will not discuss a UN proposal that would diminish Cambodia’s role in the trials.
The draft plan “leaked to the media was not written in stone,” said Hammarberg, a special rights representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
“Everything is up for discussion,” he said, shortly after arriving at Pochentong Airport.
Hammarberg is here for a week. He also will talk with government officials about the future of the local UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office.
A five-member UN legal team is scheduled to arrive in Cambodia on Wednesday to confer with government officials on the terms of international involvement with any trial and to assist in the drafting of legislation necessary for a tribunal to be held in Cambodia. The team is led by Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs Ralph Zacklin and includes a French judge and a Khmer-language expert.
Hammarberg referred questions about trials to the legal team, which also will remain in Cambodia a week. But he said he remains positive there will be an agreement with the government. “I think there will be some results, but it hasn’t reached the legal stage yet,” he said.
Hammarberg has asked for a meeting with Hun Sen, though the prime minister has not yet been given a response.
Negotiations between the government and the UN have proceeded slowly on a possible tribunal for leaders of the Khmer Rouge, which ruled from 1975 to 1979 with disastrous results.
The UN’s first team of experts visited Cambodia last November. A report the three-member team issued in March recommended a dozen top leaders be tried in an international tribunal similar to the war crimes court in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
“Only a UN tribunal,” the report stated, “can be effectively insulated from the stresses of Cambodian politics…that we believe would ultimately prove fatal to the viability of a Cambodian court.”
The first UN team concluded there was a chance for “a genuine form of national reconciliation” if the recommendations in the proposal were adopted.
“The process has been too long delayed,” the March report said, “and the time for action is here.”
Hun Sen rejected the plan, arguing any trial of Khmer Rouge leaders should be controlled by the Cambodian courts.
The UN retreated to craft another proposal, but Hun Sen has voiced similar objections to it.
Hun Sen said last week that a trial dominated by international judges and prosecutors could prompt ex-Khmer Rouge fighters to flee back into the jungle and renew the civil war.
The most recent UN trial proposal calls for a tribunal of seven judges, with three from Cambodia, or five judges, with two from Cambodia.
Indictments would be based on investigations led solely by a foreign-appointed prosecutor, though Cambodian police would be responsible for making the arrests.
Hun Sen responded by saying he will allow the international community to assist Cambodia in trying the Khmer Rouge leaders, of which there are currently just two in custody.
UN experts have said Cambodia’s court system alone is too undeveloped and too prone to corruption to dispense justice.
Asked if local courts were capable of trying Khmer Rouge leaders, Hammarberg said, ‘That’s to [the legal team] to decide.”
The first part of Hammarberg’s trip will deal with the UN’s future human rights role in Cambodia. He will be meeting with government officials, including Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong, and several NGOs early this week.
“We need to discuss how we’ll continue it,” Hammarberg said.
But “obviously,” he added, “we’ll not stay forever.”
The UN’s rights office trains Cambodians in human rights issues and monitors the actions of authorities such as the police and the military. A mandate authorizing the office to operate in Cambodia expires in March and would need to be renewed by Hun Sen’s government.