Despite earlier indications that Prime Minister Hun Sen might be willing to negotiate, a memo he delivered to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan last Thursday underscored his stance that Cambodia must control a Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“The Kingdom of Cambodia is fully entitled to try Khmer Rouge leaders,” the memo read. “Because the offenders are Cambodian, the victims are Cambodian, the place where the offenses occurred is Cambodia.”
The memo was firm, giving the UN only three options: Either appoint a minority of international judges and prosecutors to a Cambodian court, provide legal advice without direct participation or “end involvement of the United Nations.”
According to one government analyst, the document draws the clearest line in the sand to date.
“The government is taking a much harder approach than it has before,” Kao Kim Horn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Sunday.
“But I also don’t think it is the final stand,” he noted, suggesting the hard-line approach might be a bargaining tactic.
Cabinet Minister Sok An is expected to have further negotiations with UN officials in New York before the Cambodian delegation returns to Phnom Penh.
Om Yentieng, a top aide to Hun Sen who did not make the trip, said Sunday that negotiations have not stalled completely, but he added the government has no desire to give in.
“We cannot compromise. Not now,” Om Yentieng said.
Hun Sen is scheduled to speak during the General Assembly’s annual debate today and also is expected to cover the body’s dubious history of granting Democratic Kampuchea a legitimate role in international relations.
The memo itself seems to leave little room for compromise.
“I [Hun Sen] would like to affirm to His Excellency the Secretary General that the Royal Government of Cambodia cannot adopt any attitude which would mean rejecting national sovereignty and admission of incapability of its own state,” the memoradum reads.
Since discussions on trying the Khmer Rouge began, the government consistently has asked for “assistance” from the UN. But unclear over the years is exactly what type of assistance Hun Sen wants.
In 1997, Hun Sen and then-first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh wrote Kofi Annan a letter requesting the UN “bring these people to an international court of justice” because Cambodia “does not have the resources or expertise to conduct this very important procedure.”
Yet by March of this year, “assistance” merely meant legal advice to Cambodians courts—enough to grant the proceedings legitimacy abroad.
Since then, Cambodia and the UN have sparred over how to try those responsible for the more than 1 million deaths during the 1975-79 reign of Democratic Kampuchea.
In a recent visit to Cambodia by members of Annan’s staff, the UN pushed for a separate tribunal inside Cambodia that would adhere to law eventually passed by parliament. But the government argued this would encroach on its sovereignty and called instead for a trial within existing courts—which human rights groups have deemed inadequate to hold unbiased proceedings.
The government then floated a plan that would allow for a court with a few UN-appointed judges but with Cambodian jurists in the majority.
In March, Hun Sen’s bold rejection of an international-style tribunal came with the added threat by China to veto such a tribunal if brought to the UN Security Council.
Out of the Council’s hands now, the tribunal could be established by the 185-member General Assembly—even with China’s opposition. But General Assembly resolutions are not binding and couldn’t force Cambodia to accept an international tribunal.
Some observers wonder whether the premier already is shoring up his own brand of international legitimacy in case talks with the UN collapse.
“Bringing international experts in now is Hun Sen’s insurance policy,” said one Western academic close to the government-UN negotiations.
In recent months, at least four French legal experts have advised the government on its draft law that would establish a Khmer Rouge tribunal.
In addition, an Australian genocide expert was brought in by the government to help with the UN negotiations.
In addition to legal advice, the government could look to other countries like Japan for financial help if the UN is not in the picture, said the academic, who asked not to be named.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)