Top UN Legal Team Arrives as Rights Group Decries Plan

The leader of a high-profile UN legal team said Wednesday he will discuss with the government the idea of a mixed court to try former Khmer Rouge leaders, but one international human rights group slammed this proposal, calling it a breach of international standards.

“The purpose of the visit is to discuss with [the government] a mixed tribunal that would look into the question of trials of the Khmer Rouge for the commission of crimes of human rights,” UN Assistant Secretary-Gen­eral for Legal Affairs Ralph Zacklin said after arriving.

He said he is optimistic the weeklong mission will move Cambodia closer to trying those responsible for the more than

1 million deaths during the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime in an internationally-recognized court.

When asked who would hold a majority of judges on the proposed mixed tribunal, he said, “We are ready to discuss all issues with the Cambodian authorities here.”

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch dismissed the notion of a mixed court and again called for an international tribunal like those of Rwandan and Yugo­slavian genocidaires—even though Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected this idea in March.

“The [UN] plan as currently formulated does not meet minimum benchmarks to ensure a legitimate and credible process in line with international standards,” a Human Rights Watch statement released Wednesday read.

The group also decried the UN plan’s lack of an appeals pro­cess—also a sticking point for Hun Sen. The Human Rights Watch release said denying an appeal would violate Cambodia’s signature on the International Cove­nant on Civil and Political Rights treaty.

Veteran US trial lawyer Mike Karnavas, who defended the first man tried by the international Rwandan tribunal, pointed to a different set of holes in the UN proposal, key elements of which were first published in The New York Times and The Cambodia Daily earlier this month.

Characterizing it as more a political document than a sound legal one, he also said the proposal’s hybrid of international and national standards is dubious.

“They’re sacrificing a legitimate trial for the sake of expediency and getting something done,” he said. “I think Hun Sen has every right to reject this plan.”

He said a country where potential evidence and witnesses have festered for more than 20 years is no place to test out an unprecedented mixed tribunal. He added that the Nuremberg-style group trial the UN proposal suggests already was studied and rejected by the international legal community before it convened the international Rwandan tribunal.

Regardless of whether former Khmer Rouge leaders are tried as a group or as individuals, continually at issue has been the question of how a court of national judges would be taken abroad.

Since the March UN proposal for an international court was rejected by the government, human rights groups continue to remind the government that Cambodian jurists are not prepared for a trial of this scale.

Pointing to a number of cases in which trials here were short or not held at all, they cite an ongoing “culture of impunity” where members of powerful families or security forces can commit crimes without fear of arrest.

Despite Human Rights Watch’s criticism of the UN’s seemingly watered-down proposal, Lakhan Mehrotra, UN Secre­tary-General Kofi Annan’s special representative here, said by sending the Zacklin team, “the UN has clearly demonstrated its commitment to international standards.” Mehrotra, who helped organize the team’s schedule, leaves today for a UN conference in Bonn, Germany.

The UN legal team will meet today with officials including Minister of the Council of Min­isters Sok An, who leads a government committee designed to deal with the UN body.

© 1999 – 2015, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.