The UN’s top legal negotiator arrives in Phnom Penh today for what some have called the final round of talks between the world body and the Cambodian government on how to try former leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
Of course, that’s what they said the last time.
Today’s visit of Hans Corell, UN undersecretary general for legal affairs, marks the latest in a long line of negotiations on the trial since UN experts in 1998 deemed the Cambodian courts incapable of conducting their own trial.
And while few can deny significant progress has been made over the months—especially with the heavy, helping hand of the US —most observers say it will be some time before any formal agreement is reached and a trial actually gets under way.
To understand why is to look at all the players in the negotiations.
First, there is Prime Minister Hun Sen and his complex Cambodian People’s Party, which on Monday held a semi-annual congress of its central committee and is made up of both trial supporters and non-supporters.
To be sure, the premier has toned down his strident words to an international community that blah for too long ignored Khmer Rouge atrocities. He instead appears to favor compromise, according to recent public statements and reports from Monday’s CPP meeting.
Yet diplomats in the last few weeks have noted some tension in the verbal deal the premier and the UN tentatively reached in May on how to conduct the trial.
In fact, the tension might have turned to mistrust on the part of some of the less moderate members of the CPP, one diplomat said Monday.
“They are beginning to get suspicious about motives of the US in the negotiations,” he said. “As if the US might not fully support the CPP in all of its endeavors, like the US is trying to co-opt the process.”
At Monday’s meeting, Hun Sen noted growing international support of his government but expressed a lack of trust among “some people” in the US, according to one CPP member who attended.
“The US, they make so many demands on us,” high-ranking CPP member Chea Soth said on Monday after the meeting. “We are Cambodian, so we should have our independence, our sovereignty. We should do this by ourselves.”
Arguably the second most significant player in the process is the US, which through local diplomats, US state of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and other State Department representatives have brokered a compromise between the government and the UN that no one thought would come about—such as allowing the UN the final say on whom should be prosecuted in the trial.
In his visit here in May, Kerry met some of the so-called hard-liners in the CPP to persuade them to support this prosecution proposal.
To back up his pleas to the CPP, Kerry later that month told reporters he would introduce legislation in Congress to resume some of the direct aid the US cut off from Cambodia in 1997. Observers agree little progress would be made without the US.
“They have kept this alive,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
She noted, however, the US might be too deep with a government that tends to change its mind in favor of its old allies.
“And then they’re stuck in a political back-and-forth that could go on forever,” she said.
Third, one must not forget the UN, which has maintained virtually no presence in Cambodia since the UN’s Secretary-General representative office closed at the beginning of this year.
Government and US negotiators have waited for weeks for responses from the UN headquarters in New York after seemingly major breakthroughs are made in the talks.
To explain, officials say the UN is “busy with other things,” but one diplomat recently expressed a bubbling frustration with the time-consuming process.
“Days turn into weeks before the UN comments officially or publicly,” he said. “Now, we just take it one baby step at time ….One giant result is not how this is going to happen.”
Finally, there are the competing interests of other UN member states, some of whom have supported a UN-backed trial— France, Russia, Japan, Australia —and some of whom who don’t —China and Vietnam.
While the latter two remain tight-lipped about their stance on the trial, most diplomats agree their influence is felt here in Phnom Penh.
When asked how long it will take to get a trial started last week, the government’s chief negotiator, Sok An, said he could not even wager a guess.
Putting politics aside, however, most also agree the threat to national security is a palpable threat and not merely propaganda to explain further delays— especially given the recent spate of violent armed robberies in the capitol.
After speaking with former Khmer Rouge soldiers still living in the countryside, NGO workers say this threat is real. In a recent interview, one former Khmer Rouge intellectual, Suong Sikoeun, reaffirmed their fears.
“All they need is a few angry people standing on the side of the road to make things unstable again,” he said. “One rocket launcher, a few guns—that’s all it takes.”