The visit of a UN legal team now putting the final touches on a plan to try former Khmer Rouge leaders has brought fresh protests from human rights groups who say Cambodians are being left in the dark about the negotiations and that the secrecy will compromise justice.
Seventeen Cambodian rights groups issued a joint statement calling on the Cambodian government and the UN to keep the public better informed.
“The atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime influenced every part of Cambodian society,” said Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc. “Cambodians should have a say in the way the culprits of these atrocities are brought to justice.”
Because discussions have been closed to the public, Cambodians cannot offer input on the trial plans, Thun Saray said. “If we don’t know the details, we don’t know if we should support the tribunal,” he said. “We need to know more.”
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Thursday that the world body would reconsider its involvement in a tribunal if the Cambodian parliament dilutes the law now being considered.
The UN can only work with Cambodia, he said, “if the agreement we reach…is scrupulously reflected in the bill by the parliament.”
While Cambodia wants a tribunal to be internationally recognized, it desperately wants to keep control of the process, which has led to months of disputes with the UN. Many of the disagreements have been settled, though observers say a trial plan is still far from a done deal.
Hans Corell, UN undersecretary general for legal affairs, met for several hours Thursday with Sok An, minister of the Council of Ministers. They spoke with reporters for a few minutes after a four-hour session that stretched through the morning, but would say only that talks are going well.
Both sides have declined to discuss any details of the meetings—which include finding a venue for the trial and a method for selecting judges.
The rights groups said that based on their knowledge of the court system, Cambodian officials cannot be responsible for picking judges. “Judicial independence can only be achieved if all court officials are appointed by a neutral body, such as the UN,” said Sok Sam Oeun of the Cambodian Defenders Project, who chairs the legislative subcommittee of the rights group coalition.
Neither the UN nor Cambodian officials have said how judges will be chosen. The two sides have agreed that a tribunal would have a majority of Cambodian judges with one foreign and one Cambodian prosecutor—meeting Prime Minister Hun Sen’s demands that Cambodia control the trial.
Lao Mong Hay said the idea that Cambodia should control the trial because the crimes were against Cambodians is an “outdated reason” for opposing an international tribunal.
“The principle of national sovereignty has been eroding,” he said. “Human rights have become a universal value, applicable to all countries.”
Instead of compromising with the government, Lao Mong Hay said, the UN should have demanded a Khmer Rouge trial with the same international involvement as the tribunals in Rwanda and Bosnia.
“Cambodia should have the same rights as Bosnia and Rwanda,” he said. “Compared with the magnitude of the crimes, the horror, the devastation, it seems the Cambodians have suffered more than the Bosnians and Rwandans.
“Cambodia does not ask for more than other people—equality, dignity, rights.”