KR Tribunal Deal Looms as UN Team Arrives in Capitol

A UN negotiating team arrives in Cambodia’s capitol today for what could be the last round of talks on how to resolve two decades of doubt that those who led the bloody Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979 ever would be brought to justice.  

The group was dispatched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to hammer out the details of how to conduct a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders after what was characterized as a productive meeting between Annan and Prime Minister Hun Sen in Bangkok last month.

On the table now are four crucial issues: who will name the suspects in the trial, whether the Cambodian government will arrest all those suspects, whether lingering government deals with the Khmer Rouge will protect some former rebels from being prosecuted and how the trial’s foreign and Cambodian judges will be appointed.

While many agree the remaining issues are sticky, observers believe that if the two sides ever will reach an agreement, they will do it now.

Youk Chhang, who for the last five years has been gathering documents about alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities during a reign of terror that claimed the lives of more than 1 million Cambo­dians, said today’s meeting is a crucial moment in establishing peace in this war-torn country.

“We’re at a point now where both sides have a responsibility written by history. The UN has a responsibility to build trust among Cambodian people and people around the world that justice will be served. And the government has a responsibility to ensure that it will never allow crimes like this to be repeated.”

At stake is whether Cambodia’s government, which is pepperedthat if schools are required to pay for their own water, government, which is peppered with former Khmer Rouge guerrillas who eventually left the movement, can hold a fair and unbiased trial. The UN believes Cambodia’s politicized judiciary—regularly criticized for being dependent on orders from the executive branch—is unable to hold a trial that meets what the UN calls “credible, international standards of justice.”

Until now, the government has talked tough with the UN, but movements over the last few months have indicated officials are poised for compromise.

“You ask if this is an important meeting? We are ready to meet with them. We are open to hear from them. This is no joke,” said Om Yentieng, a key adviser to the prime minister.

More reticent to comment on the likelihood of an agreement, however, has been the UN, especially since the mandate for An­nan’s Cambodia-based representative expired at the end of 1999.

Before the UN team left for Cambodia this week, diplomats suggested they might be willing to suggest “creative” ways to uphold their standards.

News reports out of UN headquarters in New York said the US, France and Japan have pressured the UN to be more flexible than it has been in the past.

Yet analysts suggest that “international standards of justice” would not exist if the UN had been willing to compromise them in the past.

“There is no way they can lower those standards. Because it not only will affect Cambodia but their goal around the world to bring justice to those who cause mass suffering,” says Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.

In addition to pressuring the UN to be flexible, powerful countries have played a heavy hand in lobbying the Cambodian government to reach a deal with the UN.

On the first visit to Cambodia by a Japanese head of state in more than 40 years, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi urged the Cambodian leadership to cooperate with the UN—as he delivered $19 million in direct government aid to Cambodia.

Moreover, the US, which is considering resuming direct aid to Cambodia, has played a major role in keeping talks alive be­tween the two sides, even when it looked like negotiations had stalled.

For Hun Sen to initiate a deal, many agree he has to tread lightly with those seen as hard-liners in the CPP, and that to do so he has to pass the mantle of com­promise to others in government.

After his cabinet in early January passed the government’s trial plan, Hun Sen’s advisers insisted that responsibility for changes in the law resided with the National Assembly, the next step in a law’s passage. Diplo­mats and observers close to the on­going negotiations agreed, however, that this was more a method to publicly shirk responsibility for a compromise seen as friendly to the West than to relinquish control over negotiations.

One assembly member suggested the move was just business as usual in Cambodia.

“It’s all very normal—politicians exploiting each other,” said Monh Saphan, chairman of the assembly’s legislation committee. He said that even though the legislative branch sent suggestions on how to change the law, Hun Sen’s executive branch made it clear in a response letter that behind the scenes, it remains in control of the process.

Lao Mong Hay said the conflict over how the law will be completed reflects a problem inherent in all negotiations so far.

“The government’s treating this like a political issue, and it is really is a legal one,” he said. “It’s like we forget that we’re talking about a trial. And a trial is a legal matter.”

Yet on the UN team are both political and legal experts—including Lakhan Mehrotra, who served as Annan’s political representative in Cambodia for more than two years until his mandate expired last year.

One diplomat close to the negotiations said both political and legal expertise is needed to both complete the Cambodian law and to finalize an international agreement between the government and the UN.

“Basically, there is a lack of legal understanding by the Cam­bodian government, and there is a lack of political understanding by the UN,” he said, referring to the UN’s reluctance to send a negotiating team until now.

He said he is fearful that if talks break down now it is unlikely they could ever be restored—and that the Cambodian government would have much trouble securing support for their own trial without the UN on board.


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