Cambodia: Khmer Rouge Trial - More Recriminations


Tony Kevin

Just when it seemed that the Cambodia-UN negotiations on the Khmer Rouge trials were drawing to a close, tensions between New York and Phnom Penh have erupted again.

The Cambodian Government, accepting advice from the Cambodian Constitutional Council, had sent the (already passed) law back to the Parliament, asking that it be amended to state explicitly the impossibility of death sentences (because Cambodia does not have capital punishment). Both houses passed the revised law. After ratification by the Constitutional Council and the King it will come into force.

Meanwhile, the former head of the United Nations Transitional Administration in Cambodia (UNTAC), Yasushi Akashi, told the media after a recent private Royal audience, that the King had said his 1996 amnesty of Khmer Rouge third-ranking leader Ieng Sary, was a significant decision in Cambodian terms, not to be lightly set aside.

This report has renewed Cambodian Government concerns that the UN is trying to override existing Cambodian amnesties granted to Khmer Rouge leaders Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea, as part of Hun Sen’s 1996-98 reconciliation strategy, aimed at exploiting divisions in the Khmer Rouge and ultimately eliminating them.

Chief UN Legal Counsel Hans Corel has warned Cambodia that even after ratification of the revised law, a procedural memorandum has yet to be finalised with the UN; and the UN may want to make further substantive changes. An angered Hun Sen responded that the law and the trials are Cambodia’s business and if the UN wants to withdraw its cooperation, so be it.

This may well be an unstated UN objective. UN legal purists remain unhappy with the precedent of the compromise laboriously hammered out in 1999-2000 between the UN and Cambodia (finally, at Kofi Annan’s level). This provided for shared jurisdiction of the court with elaborate mutual checks and balances.

But some UN legal officials worry about the precedent of the Hague model of international war crimes courts being undermined by collaboration with Cambodia’s flawed legal system. They know a Cambodian trial without UN participation would have little international credibility.

As part of the mounting psychological pressure on Hun Sen, a report by ‘independent’ US-based investigators was released in July, based on analysis of 600,000 Khmer Rouge documents. It shows that the amnestied Khmer Rouge leaders were heavily implicated in ordering the 1975-78 regime’s killings. Hun Sen responded that everyone in Cambodia already knew this, and did not need international experts to tell them.

The UN is playing a nasty game with Cambodia. Hun Sen won’t roll over but won’t want to pull the plug either; he will continue to stall as long as the UN tries to impose further changes to the agreed model. And the UN will continue to try to discredit him by insinuating that his real aim is to protect former Khmer Rouge (KR) colleagues.

Hun Sen’s aims appear to be more complex. He has stated that he seeks:

  • to give appropriate respect to the King’s 1996 decree of amnesty for Ieng Sary,
  • to be seen not to be blatantly breaking his own 1996 agreement with Ieng Sary, by which half the KR forces were taken out of the insurgency and which led to the national reconciliation and amnesty for KR forces throughout Cambodia that ended the KR threat in 1998,
  • to avoid any risk of a resurgence of violence by former KR soldiers in response to a perception of bad faith by the government,and
  • to be seen not to have caved in to UN pressure or surrendered Cambodian sovereignty.

    Probably both sides hope that the three controversial accused (those to whom domestic amnesties were given) may die before the Cambodian/UN differences are finally resolved. But Cambodian politicians are long-lived.

    The cases of Ta Mok and ‘Duch’ – both under arrest and unprotected by an amnesty – would be easy to try now under agreed Cambodian/UN procedures. If the UN were sincere in wanting trials to start, the harder cases could be left for later proceedings. But in trying to dot every i and cross every t before court hearings begin, the UN side reveals more complicated motives.

    Meanwhile, the Cambodian people are heartily sick of the whole rigmarole, which is handicapping full restoration of Cambodia’s international standing, and is further undermining the UN’s reputation in Cambodia.

    It’s a relief to report that the meeting in Japan of International aid donors went well: Cambodia secured a record annual pledge of US$560 million from multilateral and bilateral donors.

    WATCHPOINT: UN manoeuvring with Cambodia over Khmer Rouge trials is set to continue.


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