Unpaid National Staff at KR Tribunal Strike for Second Time

More than 100 Cambodian staff at the Khmer Rouge tribunal announced Sunday they have gone on strike and will not return to work until they receive three months of unpaid salaries, the second time this year that national staff have taken such action.

Funding of the tribunal—along with the advanced age of the defendants—have become the most pressing problems for the court, which is now attempting to bring to a close the first mini-trial of Case 002, in which Khmer Rouge Brother Number Two Nuon Chea and head of state Khieu Samphan are facing trial for their role in mass atrocities committed by the Pol Pot regime.

The strike action from the court’s national staff is yet another setback for the Khmer Rouge tribunal and underlines the lack of will among donors to fund the national side of the hybrid court after claims of government interference and allegations of corruption.

Following Sunday’s announcement that national staff had gone on strike, spokesmen at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) were at odds over where the funding to cover the current budget shortfall needs to come from.

Court spokesman Neth Pheaktra said that in order for national staff to return to work, donor countries should heed the call from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said on Wednes­day that the tribunal was facing “a crisis” and appealed to the international community to provide financial support to the court.

“At least 100 of the 250 Cambodian staff, who have not been paid since June, start officially the strike from Sunday, September 1, 2013, until the solution on their salaries will be found. If [there are] no translators, no interpreters, and other sections do not work, it means that the work of the ECCC will [be] block[ed],” Mr. Pheaktra said in an email.

“With the special appeal from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, we strong[ly] believe that the international community will continuing [sic] to financing the ECCC. Salaries of Cambodian staff depends on the voluntary contribution of the international community,” he said.

However, Lars Olsen, spokesman for the U.N. at the court, said that the Cambo­dian government needed to fulfill its obligation to help fund the national side.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia has the obligation under the U.N./Cambodia Agreement to pay national staff salaries, but has failed to do so since May. We are very concerned about the possible risk of disruption to the judicial process through a strike by the national ECCC staff,” Mr. Olsen said in an email.

“We call on the Royal Government immediately to meet its obligation to pay the national salaries so that the strike can be averted. The U.N. is also working closely with the principal international donors to explore all possibilities for averting the crisis,” he added.

Representatives of the Cambodian government and the U.N. toured Asean countries during a six-day mission that started on August 18 in an effort to meet the court’s budget shortfall. A similar lack of funding led to a smaller strike in March in which more than 30 Cambodian staff temporarily stopped working until they received unpaid salaries.

A Cambodian interpreter at the court, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to talk with the media, said that after three months without pay, and no word on whether their salaries would be paid soon, national staff had no option but to strike.

“So far, there is no news about who is going to be paying us. It is really strange, because in the past, when there were difficult times, people would say ‘be patient, people will come to help us.’ This time the only piece of information we obtained from Office of Administration is that there is no money,” the interpreter said.

“That is the green light to us saying, look, the court has no money so we have to handle this on our own. The situation is worse this time. Last time people would be quick to help, but this time no one seems interested in helping us again,” he said.

Heather Ryan, a tribunal monitor with the Open Society Justice Initiative, said in a statement that “it will be a disaster” if the court is unable to complete the first phase of Case 002 due to a lack of funding, and cited “a pervasive lack of transparency about these practical matters that related to the core existence and credibility of the court.”

“The court cannot function without key Cambodian staff—particularly translators, interpreters, judges and prosecution staff. It will be a disaster [if] the ECCC…were to shut down so near the end of the first trial in Case 002 and the conclusion of the investigations in Cases 003 and 004,” Ms. Ryan said.

“Huge effort, energy and money has been put into the court—for it to simply shut down at this late stage because of lack of funds would be a betrayal of the Cambodian people,” she said, urging the U.N. and Cambodian government to work together to ensure that such a scenario does not come to pass.

“There has been no public information from the U.N., the donors or the government in the last weeks about the funding shortfalls for the Cambodian budget of the ECCC and the fact that the Cambodian staff have not been paid,” Ms. Ryan added.

In May, David Scheffer, the U.N.’s special expert to the tribunal, said that the funding shortfall was a result of donors having less to give to the court, and focusing what resources they have on the international side of the court.

“In the past, the Cambodian Government relied primarily on foreign donors to fund the national budget through essentially foreign assistance,” Mr. Scheffer said in an email at the time.

“Lately those donors, facing their own budget crises at home, have been focusing their limited funding capabilities on the international budget of the ECCC and requesting the Cambodian Government to meet its treaty obligation,” he added.

However, Long Panhavuth, a program officer at the Cam­bodian Justice Initiative, said that the government has said very clearly that it will not contribute additional money to the court, and therefore funds will have to come from outside the country if the court is to continue functioning.

“It is very important that the Cambodian government put more money [toward the tribunal], but it’s clear that they will not. Therefore, the international community, because they helped set up the KRT, should continue to put funding and the court should not collapse because of funding issues,” he said.

“The KRT should not fail because of a lack of funding. It would be a disrespect to the victims,” he added.

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