The government announced yesterday that it had concluded an agreement with the UN to put the government’s Auditor-General Uth Chhorn in charge of processing allegations of corruption at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Concluded with active brokering by the US and signed at the UN Office of Legal Affairs in New York on Tuesday evening, the agreement at last offered a UN-approved response to kickback allegations reported last year by Cambodian tribunal staff to UN officials. UN-administered funds for the Cambodian side of the court were frozen as a result.
Reaching any agreement between the government and the UN appeared unlikely in April after the acrimonious collapse of negotiations, during which Cambodian officials opposed any system that would again allow Cambodian staff to complain to UN officials.
The agreement was welcomed by the tribunal’s financial backers, who, in a joint statement issued by Japan and France, said they believed Mr Chhorn’s new position would be a “credible and effective mechanism.”
Since the jobs-for-kickbacks allegations were first recorded, UN officials expressed strong concern for the protection of the complainants, whose identities were concealed from Cambodian officials, and also called for a system that would guarantee the safety of any future complainants.
A confidential UN review of the allegations reportedly identified the court’s Director of Administration Sean Visoth, who has been absent without explanation for 10 months but denies the charges.
Delivering a joint statement to reporters yesterday, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that he was unaware of any evidence of corruption at the court but that both the UN and Cambodia believed the new agreement would allow all tribunal staff to raise concerns “without fear of retaliation.”
It remained unclear, however, just exactly what powers Mr Chhorn will have as an “independent counselor” governing the
Copies of the joint statement distributed to reporters at the Council of Ministers indicated that the text of the new agreement “is attached.” It was not.
“What is the power and how he exercises his own power, I’m not in a position to tell you what’s going on because he is an independent counselor,” said Mr Siphan, who referred further questions to Mr Chhorn, who said yesterday that he was traveling and declined to comment.
Mr Siphan did say, however, that any future complaints would be directed to Mr Chhorn, not to the tribunal’s two Cambodian “ethics monitors,” victims unit head Helen Jarvis and tribunal President Kong Srim, who were empanelled in August last year.
Even so, yesterday’s announcement also said the ethics monitors and a joint UN and Cambodian panel created in February to address claims of wrongdoing would both remain in place.
Mr Chhorn currently runs the National Audit Authority, an independent body created in 2000 to review the finances and operations of government bodies.
The body, which reports to lawmakers, suffers from a lengthy backlog. Its reports are also frequently marked confidential and are closely held from the public despite the fact that they are legally designated as public documents.
The UN Development Program, which was tasked with managing the tribunal’s Cambodian funding, said yesterday that the new agreement would be examined.
“We obviously welcome the agreement but we still have to review it and discuss it with our partners,” a UNDP spokesperson said.
After the collapse of negotiations in April, the UNDP refused an Australian request to unfreeze Australian funds held for the tribunal, saying that doing so would present an unacceptable level of risk due to the lack of any resolution to the kickback allegations.
The Cambodian side of the court is now funded with a $4 million Japanese contribution made directly to the government in April.
SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said that he had little faith in the new agreement as, he said, the National Audit Authority under Mr Chhorn had done little of import.
“In the annual reports from the National Audit Authority we can see there is no significant report which reflects corruption,” he said. “I have no confidence in this new body.”
“I can predict that the result will be negative and its reports will just be decoration to make others look good,” he said.