Last week, Nuon Chea, the highest ranking member of the Khmer Rouge still alive, joined Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, the chief of the S-21 torture center, in prison.
Dulled by a painfully long negotiation process to get the Khmer Rouge tribunal working, many believed that this day would never come.
But the recent arrests and the quickening pace of judicial work at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia belie serious flaws in the court’s administration and management, according to external reviews of both the UN and the Cambodian sides of the court.
In May, the UN, responding to concerns from the ECCC’s international judges, co-prosecutor, and principal defender, dispatched two independent experts to review whether the court was prepared to begin judicial work.
The answer from those experts—Robin Vincent, the former registrar for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and Kevin St Louis, the Chief of Administration for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia—was no.
Concerns about court management and leadership have become all the more pressing as the court prepares to launch a major campaign next month to raise the funds it needs to carry on its work through the end of 2009. The figure they need to raise is likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
The ECCC has a unique—and some say uniquely difficult—hybrid structure, with administration, budget, and judiciary split into Cambodian and UN sides. It’s an arrangement that has proven awkward at best.
In a confidential June report on their findings, Vincent and St Louis wrote that the divided nature of the court “serves only to constantly hinder, frequently confuse and certainly frustrate the efforts of a number of staff on both sides of the operations.”
They called the split structure “divisive and unhelpful,” and said they could see no good reason why the court had been set up as such “save for possibly a sense that the division was in place to protect the ‘sovereignty’ of the National Staff side.”
The tribunal’s UN public affairs officer, Peter Foster, said Sunday that the report is being “carefully considered,” but declined to comment on any of its specific findings.
He said a summary of the findings would be posted to the court’s Web site.
ECCC Public Affairs Chief Helen Jarvis said Sunday that the court was “always trying to improve the links between the Cambodian side and the international side.”
Vincent and St Louis recommended merging the parallel administrative functions into one combined administration, and suggested that the UN take a more prominent role in several key areas. They recommended placing translation and witness protection under the supervision of the international deputy director of administration, instead of the Cambodian Court Management section.
Their report also called for stronger judicial and administrative leadership, citing “considerable frustration” among international staff with the ECCC’s administration.
“When strong positions are needed vis a vis the national administration, they are carried out in a cautious, culturally sensitive but often ineffective manner,” they wrote.
Frustration with the court’s leadership, they wrote, had so corroded morale that they feared critical staff members would continue to leave the court.
The Cambodian Director of Administration Sean Visoth declined to comment Monday, and his UN-appointed international deputy, Michelle Lee, referred questions to Foster.
The report cited wide-ranging concerns with witness protection, document management, victim support, detention-facility oversight, security, the capacity of the office of court management, and public affairs, but the clearest evidence of management lapses may well be physical.
The court’s first pre-trial hearing—on the legality of Duch’s eight-year detention, without trial, in Phnom Penh’s military prison—could begin in November.
Pre-trial chamber judges have said they want that hearing to be open to the public, but the chambers are quite small. Jarvis said that a video link would be set up to allow for larger public participation.
Meanwhile, work on the main courtroom has yet to begin in earnest. Air-conditioning was installed in June, just in time for the press conference on the long-delayed adoption of the court’s internal rules. Jarvis said Monday that the bidding process for the courtroom renovation contract would be opened shortly.
Translation was also deemed inadequate.
In their June report, St Louis and Vincent said sources in the court estimated a six-month backlog of translation work, and that at least 10 more translators were required “urgently.”
They wrote that “even routine non-legal documents are not being translated to a standard that is acceptable,” and said that on the national side of the court “the caliber and skill levels of the staff already brought on board is doubtful.”
Jarvis on Sunday said the court was actively trying to create a higher quality, more efficient pool of translators. Restructuring has begun, efforts have been made to standardize terminology, and additional training is underway, she said.
“It’s a very challenging task. There are enormous numbers of documents,” she said, adding that the Cambodian side of the court has been hindered in recruiting quality translators because it can only pay them half of what their counterparts on the international side of the court earn.
Kranh Tony, the Cambodian Chief of Court Management, said Monday that the report was “an old story.”
He said the problems with translation stemmed from the tight talent pool in Cambodia.
“We are lacking human resources,” he said, adding: “The administrative matter is just a small case. The biggest issue is the trials.”
The lack of qualified translators cited by Vincent and St Louis also points back to hiring concerns raised late last year, which sparked UNDP to conduct an independent audit of Cambodian human resources management at the court. UNDP oversees some $6.2 million in donor funds, most of which are used to pay Cambodian staff salaries.
The results of that confidential UN audit have not been made public, but three people who have read the report said that it does not address allegations that Cambodian staffers give kickbacks in exchange for their jobs.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a US-based court monitoring group, first publicized those allegations in February.
Cambodian court officials have strenuously denied the allegations, and Jarvis reiterated Sunday that the Cambodian side of the court has accepted all of UNDP’s recommendations. Solid proof of the alleged payments, she added, has yet to surface.
“It’s been a year. This keeps being raised. The Cambodian side is working the best it can to meet international standards and discharge its responsibilities under the law,” she added.
But one Cambodian employee at the ECCC, who spoke on condition of anonymity recently, claimed that he had to hand over 25 percent of his salary in exchange for his job.
He said that after being accepted as a candidate but before signing an employment contract, he was called for an interview to “negotiate his salary,” at which the payment scheme was discussed.
“Before they make a contract they ask us to negotiate about salary. If we don’t say OK, there’s no need to be employed,” he claimed, adding that he was required to make the payments, in cash, shortly after his paycheck was deposited in his bank account each month.
No records were kept of the transactions, which, he claimed, were collected by another staff member of equally modest rank. “You cannot get evidence,” he added.
He also claimed that three other employees at the court had told him directly that they too had to make payments.
Most people at the court, he added, are honest and the tribunal’s reputation is being damaged by a few poor players.
“I want to improve good governance in this court, especially the Cambodian side,” he said.
“If they do like that, it’s not fair. They teach Cambodian employees how to make corruption,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)