As his advisers indicated he might adopt a hard-line stance with the UN on a tribunal of former Khmer Rouge leaders, Prime Minister Hun Sen departed Wednesday for a trip abroad scheduled to culminate in a meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Boarding the plane, Hun Sen indicated he has “a lot of problems to discuss with Kofi Annan” when he travels to New York later this month.
One of the premier’s most trusted advisers, Om Yentieng, hinted that if the UN fails to compromise with the government, “Cambodia probably could be left alone to hold a trial.”
“We have to make a trial of Khmer Rouge leaders in order to strengthen the rule of law in Cambodia. We will make a trial accepted by most countries—even if not by the UN,” Om Yentieng said.
Their comments came as a high-profile UN legal team also departed Wednesday after a week of talks on how to try those responsible for the more than 1 million deaths during the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea regime.
On the UN’s side of the bargaining table sits a proposal for an international-style ad hoc tribunal held here under Cambodian law. During a briefing here Tuesday, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Ralph Zacklin stressed that the UN would not budge on the nature of the court and has no intention of supporting anything less than a separate tribunal.
Yet retaining sovereignty is tantamount to the government plan, which calls for a trial within existing municipal court while allowing for “international assistance.”
Critics say the government proposal equals a “show trial” in a justice system Human Rights Watch deemed “incapable of meeting minimum standards of due process and fairness.”
Youk Chhang, who runs the Documentation Center of Cambodia, questioned why the government will not give in.
“What do they have to lose? It’s for the good of all Cambodia to try the Khmer Rouge in a believable court,” he said.
Alluding to how a trial in municipal court would be interpreted by voters in the next election, he said: “I don’t think people will buy it. Don’t underestimate the understanding of a farmer in the village.”
One Asian diplomat based here said he doubts the government and the UN will reach consensus during Hun Sen’s visit to New York. He said the UN already has given in on the tribunal by conceding it be held in Cambodia.
A March UN plan to establish a tribunal outside Cambodia was nixed by Hun Sen.
The rejection was the first of Hun Sen’s many moves to retain control.
“Now the question is, will Hun Sen give up any control?” said the diplomat, who asked not be named.
One independent legal expert sent here to analyze tribunal talks for the International Federation for Human Rights cautioned that the concept of a fair trial is a subtle one.
“Even societies with sophisticated legal systems can fail to provide a fair trial—especially in politically charged situations,” said William Schabas, a law professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal who worked closely with the national Rwandan genocide trials.
He suggested those proceedings—completely separate from an international ad hoc Rwandan tribunal in Tanzania—could serve as a model for Cambodia if the government here rejects the UN.
While the Rwandan trials are not “marvelous paradigms of justice,” he said human rights groups agree the courts are progressing fairly.
“If the choice is between some justice and no justice, which is better?”
In addition to his meeting with Kofi Annan, Hun Sen will speak to the UN General Assembly on Sept 20.
In the coming weeks, he will travel to Canada and Cuba.
Before leaving, the prime minister met with King Norodom Sihanouk, who recently returned to Cambodia after receiving regular medical treatment in China.
The meeting with the returning monarch is routine, according to an aide to Hun Sen.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)