Concluding a week of talks on trying those responsible for more than 1 million deaths here between 1975 and 1979, the leader of a UN negotiating team said Tuesday any “show trial” that skews from an international-style, ad hoc tribunal will not be supported by the UN or the international community.
Citing a “wide divergence” between the UN’s position and a government proposal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders in the existing municipal court with “international assistance,” UN Assistant Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Ralph Zacklin stressed that the UN proposal is “state of the art.”
“As far as the organization of the tribunal is concerned, I don’t think we would be able to change our basic ideas,” Zacklin said during a Tuesday news briefing at Sunway Hotel. He noted that the government approached the UN and requested “this process be recognized as legitimate by the international community.
“Only the United Nations can provide this legitimacy,” he said.
Even though the UN initially proposed an international tribunal outside Cambodia like those of Rwandan and Yugoslavian suspects, Zacklin said legitimacy could be achieved under the UN’s current plan for a “mixed” tribunal because the UN would appoint foreign and Cambodian judges while still adhering to Cambodian law.
Zacklin admitted little substantive progress was made during meetings with a government working group headed by Minister of Cabinet Sok An. The two sides exchanged draft proposals and “made their positions clear,” Zacklin said.
The diplomatic ball, he said, is in Sok An’s court.
“Ultimately it would be for the government to decide whether or not it can accept our conditions,” Zacklin said. “There has to be a meeting of the minds on the nature of the tribunal, on the concept.”
He noted the government is free to proceed with its own trial by its own standards, “but the UN will not be in a position to lend itself to this process.”
It will only participate, he said, if the court “can act with complete independence and integrity.”
Characterizing the legal system here as clearly unable to conduct a fair trial, he said: “There should be no room for arbitrary decisions by either a prosecutor or judge … That is what we mean by higher standards of international justice.”
After the UN’s second and final meeting Saturday with the government working group, Sok An pledged to revise his position and deliver it to UN officials in the coming weeks.
The next step after that, Zacklin said, will be Prime Minister Hun Sen’s trip this month to New York, where he said the premier has requested a meeting with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The prime minister, who did not meet with the UN team here, departs today for Canada, Cuba and the US.
At issue for Hun Sen and the government has been retaining sovereignty while achieving international approval. While Zacklin argued the entire discussion hedges on resolving what type of tribunal will be built, other questions about the UN plan remain.
For instance, while the UN plan disallows granting any pre-trial amnesty to the accused, it does not waive the King’s constitutional right to pardons after convictions, Zacklin said. But he said he hopes “judgments of [an international] tribunal would be fully respected by all of the competent authorities in Cambodia.”
In addition to the threat of post-trial pardons, government officials have warned that indictments and arrests of surviving rebels who in recent years defected to the government could spark renewed civil war.
Zacklin dismissed this suggestion as “political,” however, and said the integrity of an international process would “by itself dispose of this question.”
The UN team’s week here comes to a close after meetings with a number of government officials, NGOs and diplomats—as well as former Khmer Rouge leaders.
Earlier Tuesday, Pailin Governor Y Chhien, who once served as a Pol Pot bodyguard, reiterated his support of the government plan for a municipal trial. He said he would not interfere in arrests if the order came from Cambodian judges.
But when pressed on how he would react if the UN plan prevails, he merely said, “We will follow whatever decision made by the government.”
In a news briefing Tuesday morning at the Royal Phnom Penh hotel, Y Chhien urged that “Khmer issues must be left to Khmer people.”
He said only deceased Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and now-imprisoned alleged executor Ta Mok are guilty of international crimes. Any other suspects, like Ieng Sary, who served as foreign minister of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, should not be prosecuted because they “are innocent and legally joined the government,” he said.
Zacklin said a list of indictees will not be formed until a prosecutor can investigate suspects. Yet he said potential evidence already gathered here “will allow prosecutors to quickly establish cases against a number of leaders of the Khmer Rouge” who are still alive.
Researchers at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, who assemble possible evidence, have said more than sufficient documents exist to charge Ieng Sary with international offenses.
Once a tribunal concept is agreed upon by the UN and the government, Zacklin said it could take at least another year to assemble the staff and conduct investigations. “Justice for the Cambodian people is long overdue,” he said.
“The fact that we are sitting here today in 1999 discussing such a tribunal is a very sad commentary. I certainly hope that justice will be established for the Cambodian people—and I certainly hope the Cambodian government will pursue its efforts together with the UN to achieve this aim.” (Additional reporting by Lor Chandara