Proceedings at the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal were halted on Monday when Cambodian staff from the Interpretation and Translation Unit (ITU) went on strike, saying they would not return to work until they are paid their salaries.
The strike—the first in the tribunal’s history—was announced as the hearing began, when the voice of a Khmer-to-English interpreter came over the live feed and said that staff from the ITU would strike with immediate effect until they are paid three months worth of overdue wages.
“Mr. President, a message from the interpreters,” the speaker said in reference to Trial Chamber President Nil Nonn. “Mr. President and your honors and parties to the proceedings, we, the ITU staff of the ECCC, are now implementing our work boycott. We won’t get back to work until our salaries for December 2012 and January and February 2013 are paid.”
The Trial Chamber judges quickly convened to decide how to proceed without the help of the interpreters. After 45 minutes, the hearing resumed, but the court was informed by the ITU that it would only continue for another half hour because “after that, it is not technically feasible to continue,” a French-to-English translator said, speaking on behalf of his national counterparts.
Before proceedings stopped, the judges told the court that co-accused Ieng Sary had been hospitalized that morning, and that the testimony of expert witness Philip Short, which was scheduled for Monday, would be delayed.
National staff at the tribunal have been threatening to strike since January over a worsening financial crisis that has seen most of them go unpaid since November. They have also been working without any employment contracts since the beginning of the year.
Speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity, and directly after ITU staff were called into a meeting with management following the prematurely adjourned hearing, one of the national court interpreters said that 30 staff from the unit had decided they had no choice but to strike.
“Everyone shares the same concerns,” the interpreter said. “We are not going back to work unless the demand in our statement is met.”
He said unit staff had been “afraid” of the court’s Office of Administration for “a long time,” and felt that it had only offered empty promises that staff would eventually be paid if they held out and waited.
“But at this point in time, we have been very patient, very polite, and I think patience has its limits,” the interpreter said. “We can’t keep working without pay for three months in a row without employment contracts; I can’t find any reason why staff would work.”
The interpreter added that the Office of Administration, which is headed by acting director Tony Kranh, “is doing its best to make sure we can be suppressed, intimidated and cajoled to calm down and stay as calm as possible over the next few weeks or months.”
Monday’s meeting was the first time Mr. Kranh personally met with the unit staff, the interpreter said.
After being asked to return to work in the morning meeting, the unit staff again met with a representative from the office in the afternoon, and staff were told their boycott had been carried out without proper grounds and warning to judges. They were also told that they would not be paid unless they returned to work, and that the U.N. was looking to find replacements for them, the interpreter said.
Mr. Kranh hung up twice on a reporter on Monday.
The interpreter also called on the government to “stop interfering in court affairs” and suggested political interference in the case was the reason national staff are going unpaid.
Court monitors have said that long-standing allegations of political interference give rise to reticence among donors.
While other media reports on Monday inferred that the onus is on donor countries to solve the salary crisis, Article 15 of the ECCC agreement between the U.N. and the government actually states that “salaries and emoluments of Cambodian judges and other Cambodian personnel shall be defrayed by the Royal Government of Cambodia.”
In principle, the government and U.N. are supposed to take care of national and international salaries, respectively. In practice, salaries on both the national and international sides are largely funded by donors.
The government pledge of $1.8 million toward the court’s 2013 budget, however, has done little to contribute meaningfully to the payment of salaries, and a failure to pay the staff effectively means that the government is in breach of the agreement.
Reached by telephone, Ek Tha, spokesman for the Office of the Council of Ministers, said the government did not have the means to contribute any more, and called on donor countries to step in and pledge money.
“The government has no budget available to contribute to the ECCC,” he said, “because the government contribution for the ECCC already exceeds the commitment from the national budget to the country’s Supreme Court by 257 percent and to the Appeals Court by 300 percent.”
“In terms of the ECCC, the international side cannot work without the national side,” he said. “In other words, a bird cannot fly with one wing.”
Mr. Tha appealed to donor countries to meet the shortfall.
According to its revised budget for the year, the national component needs $9.4 million to fulfill its operational obligations.
Court press officer Neth Pheaktra said he had no prior knowledge of the ITU’s intentions, and was “surprised” when they announced the strike.
In an email, Mr. Pheaktra said: “Other national staff that are facing the same problems as their colleagues at the ITU will also boycott their work if they still do not get paid, because they cannot survive. All staff play a crucial role to maintain the good function of ECCC.”
Monday was the day Mr. Short, expert witness and author of “Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare,” was supposed to give testimony.
With no end in sight to the strike and Ieng Sary in Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, it is unclear if or when Mr. Short will be heard in court.
Ieng Sary’s international defense lawyer Michael Karnavas said outside court on Monday that he learned at 7:10 a.m. that his client was being taken to the emergency ward.
“We understand he had excessive diarrhea and was vomiting,” Mr. Karnavas said, adding that “it would be fanciful to say that for someone like Short that Ieng Sary would waive his right to be present.”
He also said that while this strike is “regrettable, it is understandable.”
“Behind every face, there’s a family that relies on this,” he added.
Ky Bousuor, a doctor at Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, said Ieng Sary arrived at 7:30 a.m.
“He had a stomach ache and heartburn,” Dr. Bousuor said. “We don’t know how long he will stay in hospital; it depends on the situation of his illness.”
After the announcement of the strike and halt in proceedings, some 500 people who were visiting the court from Kompong Speu and Takeo provinces went home largely disappointed.
Thap Bun Theang, 58, who traveled from Banteay Meanchey province in the hope of attending an afternoon session, voiced his unhappiness at being unable to witness proceedings.
“I want to see how the court proceeds, whether it’s fair or not,” he said.
Panhavuth Long, a program officer for the Cambodian Justice Initiative, said it was becoming ever clearer that funding and health problems are two of the court’s biggest battles.
“Funding is a big issue and health issues are continuing to be an alarming issue that may interrupt the proceedings of the ECCC,” he said.
“I think it’s very important that staff get paid…. This is a test of whether the Cambodian government is committed to the rule of law and ending impunity and providing more support so they could involve the proceedings to go ahead.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy and Chin Chan)