A UN delegation sent to Cambodia to discuss trying former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime visited the “killing fields” at Choeung Ek on Sunday to lay a memorial wreath and emphasize the importance of their visit.
After viewing the site’s skull-filled stupa and walking among deep ditches that once held the discarded bodies of hundreds of victims, Hans Corell, the UN undersecretary general for legal affairs, said Cambodia’s suffering of the 1970s never should be overlooked. “We have come here to remember…the atrocities that visited the people of this country in the ’70s. This must not be forgotten,” he said.
He also was quick to admit the UN’s failings during years dominated by the Cold War, when the world body granted Khmer Rouge leaders a seat after they were ousted from power by the Vietnamese.
It’s a point rarely lost on Cambodian government spokesmen—especially when negotiations with the UN have been strained. Prime Minister Hun Sen frequently shines a spotlight on the UN’s former relationship with the Khmer Rouge.
“We can of course all ask ourselves where we were when all this happened,” said Corell, the UN’s top legal official. “Our hope is that the United Nations today is different from what it was in those days.”
He added that the UN of today no longer will tolerate mass crimes like the more than 1 million Cambodian deaths from 1975 to 1979—no matter who commits them. “When atrocities are committed against the population of a country, it is no longer considered internal affairs of that country. [The UN] and its member states are prepared to take action,” he said.
His comments came as talks between the UN and a government group slowed down Sunday afternoon and both sides announced they would take a day to “reflect” on each other’s positions. Talks resume Tuesday.
Corell also confirmed that the UN delegation is willing to stay longer than the one week they were scheduled to negotiate on how to conduct the trial. He characterized Sunday’s meetings as “frank.” “We are negotiating, and we still are not in full agreement,” Corell said.
Minister of Cabinet Sok An, who is heading the government’s negotiating efforts, was reluctant Sunday to elaborate, saying only that on Tuesday “you will have more details.”
Om Yentieng, a top adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, suggested that the UN team would not meet with the premier until the end of their stay.
Observers close to the talks said talks so far have focused more on minutiae than the more polarizing issues, like the “four demands” Corell outlined in a letter to the government in January:
- The trial should have an independent, UN-appointed prosecutor, as opposed to a system of “co-prosecutors” proposed by the government.
- The UN should be responsible for appointing all foreign judges and should maintain some control over Cambodian judges’ appointments and the overall makeup of the bench. (Each side wants a majority of judges.)
- The government should be responsible for arrests.
- Any government-granted amnesties or pardons to former Khmer Rouge members should not be honored.
Although Corell said progress has been made on some of these four concerns, he would not elaborate on which ones remain sticking points.
A diplomat familiar with the government’s stance said only the first two of the four remain concerns for Sok An and his negotiating team. In their minds, he said, the government wants to see UN-Cambodian participation on all levels—which means an independent UN prosecutor would not be acceptable.
Political analyst Kao Kim Hourn said talks are going much better than they did last August, when a UN team was here for a week.
He said since last month’s Bangkok meeting between Hun Sen and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN’s “political will” was more firm than before.
“Last time it was a technical, legal exercise. But the Khmer Rouge, and what happened in our past, that’s a political affair and can only be resolved with negotiations,” he said, adding that “both sides” are under considerably more pressure now to reach a deal than they were before.
“Sit at the table until it’s done. That’s what they need to do.”