Rights Groups Urge UN to Hold Firm on Cambodia Trials


By Jim Lobe

January 6, 2003

International human rights groups are calling on the United Nations to hold firm against concessions demanded by the government of Cambodia during negotiations in New York this week over the possible trial of senior surviving members of the Khmer Rouge regime for massive human rights abuses committed during its four-year rule, from 1975 to 1979.

The groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), say that a law approved by Cambodia's parliament to set up a "mixed" tribunal consisting of a majority of Cambodian judges and a minority of international judges falls far short of the procedures used in other tribunals, for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as those of the International Criminal Court (ICC), currently being set up in The Hague.

"Any judicial procedure that involves the UN should not fall short of the international standards provided in the Rome Statute for the ICC, to which Cambodia is a state party," according to Amnesty, which noted that Cambodian nongovernmental organizations and members of the country's legal profession called on both Prime Minister Hun Sen and the UN to ensure a truly international process.

"There is now a risk that the United Nations will be dragged into a process that will create a sham tribunal," Mike Jendrzejczyk, HRW's Washington director for Asia, wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune. "A tribunal that doesn't meet international standards would be an enormous setback for the Cambodian people."

The question of justice and accountability for Khmer Rouge leaders has bedeviled Cambodia and the international community, particularly since the group finally collapsed in the late 1990s. Under its 1970s rule, up to two million Cambodians died from execution, starvation, and disease.

Despite that record, almost all of the top Khmer Rouge leaders have lived openly in Cambodia since the death of their historic leader, Pol Pot, in 1998. They include Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's deputy in the Khmer Rouge regime, who has been linked to the deaths of hundreds of Cambodians at a torture center in downtown Phnom Penh.

The UN General Assembly has long called for trials against these individuals, but negotiations between the UN and Phnom Penh over how this could be accomplished broke up early last year after Hun Sen, who was himself a Khmer Rouge soldier in the early 1970s, got parliament to approve a law establishing a court that failed to meet minimum UN requirements.

Among other problems, the law failed to allow for an independent prosecutor who was not subject to the government's direction or to provide for the protection of witnesses. Those flaws, as well as a provision that the majority of judges must be Cambodian, made it clear, according to the rights groups, that the tribunal would not be sufficiently independent of the government's influence.

"Cambodians have grown used to the political nature of justice in their country," according to Jendrzejczyk, "where government officials do not hesitate to tell judges how to decide cases and prosecutors follow orders instead of evidence."

Last month, however, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution requesting Secretary-General Kofi Annan "resume negotiations" on the formation of a "mixed tribunal." While the resolution passed with the support of the United States, China, Japan, France, Vietnam, Singapore, and Australia, 30 countries--including Canada and most members of the European Union --indicated their reservations by abstaining.

With the passage of the resolution, however, Annan invited Cambodia to send an envoy to begin "exploratory talks" on the issue January 6. Hun Sen said he would dispatch a delegation headed by Senior Minister Sok An, who has acted as Cambodia's chief negotiator in previous rounds of talks, to New York for that purpose.

Rights groups are urging Annan to ensure that the UN does not compromise on its past demands that the tribunal's independence from the government be guaranteed. "The Cambodian people, who have suffered so much without access to justice or redress, deserve nothing less than the highest standards of justice," said Amnesty.

Furthermore, according to Jendrzejczyk, the UN could damage its credibility if it goes along with a less-than-independent tribunal. "In the future, why would countries accept the rigorous models used for the crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda when they could demand the soft 'Cambodian model'?"

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