UN Team Empty-Handed as It Departs After Tribunal Talks

‘Only One Point’ Unresolved for UN, Gov’t Agreement

A UN delegation failed to reach a formal agreement on how to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge before leaving Phnom Penh Wednesday, despite some predictions that Prime Minister Hun Sen would step in at the last minute and forge at least an informal deal.

In fact, the UN delegates had expressed a willingness to stay beyond their departure date to finalize an agreement, but the government on Tuesday officially terminated the talks.

“We have not yet arrived at an overall agreement,” UN Unders­ecretary General for Legal Affairs Hans Corell said Wed­nesday after a morning meeting with Hun Sen. “A few issues still divide us.”

Yet Corell and government spokesmen retained an upbeat attitude that a deal eventually could be reached. As the UN team was saying its good-byes, Om Yentieng, a top aide to Hun Sen, pulled them aside for another 20-minute meeting and emerg­ed saying “the door re­mains open” for agreement.

Om Yentieng said it is likely Hun Sen will meet UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in mid-April at a summit of developing nations in Cuba.

After that summit, the government’s own plan to hold a trial will go before the National Assembly, on April 19.

The UN and the government made considerable progress in their week-long talks. In fact, Om Yentieng said “only one point” remains between them.

He’s apparently referring to the UN demand that a foreign prosecutor control the process of deciding who will stand trial. Other key issues such as an assurance past pardons won’t apply, a commitment by Cambodia to arrest suspects and the makeup of the court have tentatively been ag­reed upon and were spelled out in documents exchanged be­tween the parties after a dinner Tuesday night.

Despite the progress made, the government appears to be retaining ostensible control of the process by delaying a UN agreement until the government’s version is passed by Cambodia’s lawmakers.

“This is such a…cat and mouse game,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Insti­tute of Democracy, adding that the National Assembly easily could have forwarded the law back to the Hun Sen’s executive branch, the Council of Ministers, to clear the way for an agreement with the UN this week.

“It’s a contradiction on the government’s part,” Lao Mong Hay said. “One day they say they want to get the trial going right away. And now they stall it….They cut deals only when it serves their own interests.”

Most agree, however, there are myriad competing interests that motivated Cambodia’s leaders to delay the deal just when it seemed two years of negotiations with the UN would come to an end.

Primarily, Hun Sen has to please countries like China and Vietnam, where the premier vacationed just as talks began and where officials likely fear too much exposure during a trial.

Lao Mong Hay said Hun Sen also will have a particularly hard time convincing the old-school communists within his party that a UN-dominated trial in the party’s best interests.

One party stalwart who at first was allied with the Khmer Rouge before defecting to Vietnam in 1977 indeed was more reluctant about a deal with the UN.

“Cambodia will keep its sovereignty. I support a trial, but it must be respectful to Cambodia’s sovereignty,” said CPP honorary president Heng Samrin, who said he was in Vietnam recently around the same time as Hun Sen.

Economic pressures from powerhouses like the US, Japan and France to reach a deal with the UN also loom over talks, in addition to more a more muted desire from regional investors to see a Cambodia that is committed to developing its financial and political institutions.

Still lingering, too, is the threat that Cambodia again could explode into civil war if former Khmer Rouge rebels pick up arms to defend leaders called to trial.

Hun Sen for months has made this claim, but analysts wonder if it is more a public excuse for delaying a trial than a real threat.

Observers say that if Cambodia were in danger, the premier would be taking more visible precautions to stop it. Those once affiliated with the Khmer Rouge in different parts of the country, however, in recent months have alluded to a persistent loyalty that could still move them to violence.

All competing interests aside, one Asian diplomat said this week’s delayed deal could merely be a result of Asian-style politicking.

“It’s more about saving face than it is about substance,” he said.

“After talking tough for so long, the Cambodian government can’t just agree on everything. Just give them a few more weeks… and it doesn’t look like they backed down.”

(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath and Lor Chandara)

 

 

 

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