In a move that caught even his own party off guard, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday announced he has reached a compromise on how to try one-time Khmer Rouge leaders and accepted US proposals to involve the international community.
“At this hour, at this time, I can say that the situation is cooperative….We and the UN can reach an agreement on the Khmer Rouge trial,” the premier said. “I have agreed on it already, so let there be no more doubt.”
His comments came just as he stepped on an airplane bound for Laos—and amid questions over whether a deal ever would emerge between the government and the UN over how to try those responsible for 20-year-old crimes against humanity.
The compromise was conceptualized in Washington and brokered by US Ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann, who recently met with a number of high-level government officials and has since returned to Washington to report on the talks.
The US plan aims at softening the government’s emphasis on who holds a majority in the court and focuses on atrocities committed between 1975 and 1979, when more than 1 million Cambodians died during the reign of Democratic Kampuchea.
Although the compromise plan has yet to be accepted by the UN to assure its involvement in the trial, diplomats were hopeful UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s team of legal experts would respond positively.
Key to the US plan is a “super-majority” on the court, where Cambodian judges would hold a majority in number, but a final verdict could not be reached without agreement from UN-appointed judges. In addition, it would establish an appeals court within Cambodia’s existing legal system, where similar voting principles would apply.
The US plan also would limit the focus of the trial to the top members of the Khmer Rouge who orchestrated the mass killings, despite concerns in the past over whether former Khmer Rouge leaders who recently defected to the government ever would see a courtroom.
Although a handful of key CPP members had been briefed on the US proposal, few were prepared for Tuesday’s announcement. Before Hun Sen boarded the plane, Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong said the government was still “reviewing” the compromise plan and no agreement had been reached.
After the prime minister announced the contrary, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith was floored.
“Twenty minutes before he leaves, he says nothing about it,” Khieu Kanharith said of Hun Sen. “Nobody knew it. They were all together, and nobody knew it.”
One of the few people Hun Sen contacted beforehand was National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
The first to formally announce the compromise on Tuesday afternoon, the prince said Hun Sen phoned him Monday evening to discuss the deal.
If there are five judges on the court, “two would be foreign and three Cambodian. But a ruling can only be passed by four judges,” he said, explaining the super-majority.
Speaking to reporters at the National Assembly, the Prince added that Hun Sen said “if a national-style court is formed,” former Khmer Rouge leaders would agree to “participate” in the trial.
Other Funcinpec members present at Pochentong Airport Tuesday afternoon were surprised, yet pleased, by the announcement.
“Finally,” exclaimed secretary of state for the Public Works and Transport Ministry Ahmad Yahya. “If we want acceptance from the international community, we have to accept what they request.”
Co-minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath and Minister of Health Hong Sun Huot agreed the prime minister’s decision to compromise in part was precipitated by King Norodom Sihanouk’s recent statements encouraging heavy international involvement in the trial.
In his monthly bulletin, the King countered Hun Sen’s repeated claims that Cambodia’s sovereignty would be whittled away by heavy UN assistance. Instead, Cambodia could retain its sovereignty and still be viewed as legitimate abroad, the King wrote.
Diplomats and political analysts agreed the King weighed heavily on Hun Sen’s move.
“I knew it was coming, but it would just take a little time,” said Youk Chhang, who assembles potential trial evidence as director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. He noted that even before writing the bulletin article, the King was leaning toward taking a stand on the trial.
One Asian diplomat did not dispute the King’s influence but added another key element was the economic clout wielded by the US, which cut off direct aid to Cambodia after factional fighting in July 1997.
“They funnel a lot of indirect aid through Cambodia, through NGOs. While this may or may not formally be on the bargaining table between the US and the government, it cannot be ignored,” the diplomat said.
The type of international involvement outlined by the US plan comes much closer to what human rights groups have pushed for since a fully international tribunal was rejected by the government in March.
Here on a routine visit to report on human rights, the UN’s Sweden-based special human rights envoy to Cambodia, Thomas Hammarberg, said Tuesday that he was pleased with Hun Sen’s plans.
“I am confident an agreement can be reached which would lead to a trial in which international standards of justice, fairness and due process of law are guaranteed,” said Hammarberg, who in the past has negotiated between the UN and the government over the trial.
The next steps toward assembling the court, according to Minister of Cabinet Sok An, include completing a draft genocide law, with the help of legal advisers from France, India, Germany, the US and possibly Russia.
“Discussions with the US have produced positive results,” Sok An said Tuesday.
Once finalized, the draft law will be sent on to the UN and then through the Cambodian lawmaking process.
“We now have to hurry to draft a law as quickly as possible in order to get on with putting the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial,” Hun Sen said on Tuesday.
Yet still unclear is how committed Hun Sen is to UN involvement. Since his return last month from a New York meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the prime minister publicly has argued the government could proceed with or without the UN.
Another diplomat cautioned that Tuesday’s announcement is but one major step in ongoing talks between the UN and the government.
“That the government is willing to talk, that’s the breakthrough. Many details still remain to be worked out,” he said.