The government expects to reach an agreement with the UN on a Khmer Rouge tribunal now that Prime Minister Hun Sen has indicated his willingness to compromise in order to restart the stalled negotiations, a government official who is close to the talks said Wednesday.
“The reason for making such a compromise is that, as stated by the prime minister, we want the negotiations to be back on track,” the official said. “We expect that from this we can reach an agreement.”
Hun Sen’s offer to amend the government’s tribunal law, announced Tuesday, has sparked fresh optimism among diplomats and observers in Phnom Penh and Washington that the talks might resume four months after the UN abandoned them.
It’s unclear, however, how the UN’s chief tribunal negotiator views the compromise offer. Hans Corell, chief of the UN’s Legal Affairs office and the UN’s top lawyer, did not respond to questions e-mailed to him Tuesday.
It’s also unclear exactly which parts of the tribunal law would be changed or how the law would be amended. Hun Sen indicated Tuesday that the current plan calling for a three-level tribunal with trial, appeals and supreme courts could be simplified to just one or two courts.
It also remains to be seen whether a government agreement with the UN or Cambodian law would take precedence over the tribunal.
The disagreements derailing the talks earlier this year were essentially about whether a UN-Cambodia memorandum of understanding would reign supreme over the tribunal law passed by the National Assembly in August.
Many found reason for optimism in Hun Sen’s remarks. A spokesman for the US State Department said Hun Sen’s comments were encouraging.
“We welcome the remarks,” said spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking in Washington Tuesday at the State Department’s daily press briefing. He indicated that talks have continued since February despite the UN’s withdrawal.
“This has been a subject of continuing and ongoing discussion with us and the United Nations and the Cambodian government,” Boucher said.
The news of possible compromise also brought optimistic comments from diplomats and observers in Phnom Penh.
“We strongly hope that negotiations between the UN and the Cambodian government will resume in a prompt manner,” said an official at the Japanese Embassy.
Japan has been cited as one of a handful of UN member states who have kept the talks alive by ferrying messages back and forth between the UN and the Cambodian government.
“I think this is excellent,” said Verghese Mathews, the Singaporean Ambassador to Cambodia. “I think what it suggests very clearly is that the Cambodian government is committed to a trial. I hope there will be an equally positive response from the UN side.”
An official at the Indian Embassy in Phnom Penh said the basic question of control remains to be resolved.
“The basic question is of primacy,” said the official. “Is it the primacy of the UN or the primacy of the Cambodian law?”
India is the only nation to publicly indicate its willingness to assist Cambodia if the government decides to hold a tribunal without UN support.
“The first priority is that Cambodia negotiates with the UN,” the diplomat added, however.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which was created to catalogue evidence of war crimes in the event that a tribunal might one day be held, said pressure from the international community at last month’s donor’s meeting may have forced the compromise.
“I think that it was the real pressure for the first time at the [donor] meeting. They emphasized the issues of judicial reform and impunity, and it was very clear that these two issues are related to the absence of the KR prosecution. I think that pressure really resulted in the speech made by the prime minister [Tuesday],” Youk Chhang said.
He said he was confident an agreement could be reached soon.
“It should not take so much time since we have been working on all other issues in detail already,” he said.