While it likely has few practical applications at this point, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s offer of an Indian judge for a non-UN-sponsored Khmer Rouge trial is an important gesture to Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose trial options outside of a partnership with the UN have so far lacked international credibility.
“The Indian offer sends a very powerful signal to the UN that the UN is not alone in the Khmer Rouge trial,” said Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.
“Of course the UN should have an important role if it were to choose to play that role. But if the UN is out of the process, then there are other interested parties, and this gives the prime minister new leverage to [show] that Cambodia has other viable options.”
The UN pulled out of the tribunal talks in February and has so far refused to return to the negotiating table. When negotiations stalled in the past, Hun Sen repeatedly threatened that Cambodia would hold its own trial. But that idea has been roundly criticized by the international community and by Cambodians who say the country’s weak judiciary system would make a farce of the proceedings.
India’s offer “is significant because it’s the first country to publicly say it is willing to go it alone with Cambodia,” said one Asian diplomat Wednesday. “This is definitely a boost in [Hun Sen’s] case against the UN.”
But the diplomat warned that Hun Sen will still need the endorsement of Western countries, which may be difficult to get.
Some UN diplomats have tried to convince UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to reopen talks with Cambodia.
“The UN is a very important element to most of us who have been working on this for a very long time, and we’re not willing to abandon it at this point,” US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said. “The UN remains the best device to guarantee international standards of justice.”
But the possibility of Cambodia striking out alone in its quest for Khmer Rouge justice represents a “new reality” for future international legal proceedings, Kao Kim Hourn said.
“There is no single approach to the international tribunal for crimes against humanity,” he said. “At the end of the day there would still be hope for the Khmer Rouge trial, with or without the UN. This could set new precedents for trials of crimes against humanity outside the UN system.”
What other countries would be willing to assist Cambodia if the UN refuses to rejoin the legal proceedings?
France and Russia, along with India, provided legal help during drafting of the trial legislation passed by Cambodian parliamentarians. A Russian Embassy official said Wednesday that no one at the embassy has been approached about a trial without UN participation.
“But Russia supported the federation for Khmer Rouge trials previously, and Russia will support the Cambodian government in whatever decision it makes,” the official said.
Other countries, although they have not publicly supported the UN’s decision to abandon trial talks, have also not voiced support for Cambodia going ahead with a trial without the UN.
“I don’t see many Western countries coming on board,” the Asian diplomat said. He added that he thought it was too soon for Hun Sen to seriously consider a Khmer Rouge trial without the UN.
“I don’t think he is so brash at this moment to say, ‘I can go it alone.’ He is more realistic than that…. But it is a very big first step.”
(Additional reporting by David Kihara)
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