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Failed Corruption Talks Worry Some

Cambodian officials gave guarded reaction to a UN statement following failed corruption talks over the tribunal on Wednesday, a statement that said in part the UN would pursue its own anti-corruption measures at the UN-backed court.

UN Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs Peter Taksoe-Jensen left three days of talks with Council Minister Sok An Wednesday with no agreement on how to address the nagging allegations of corruption and mismanagement that have led to a dearth of funds and a cash-strapped Cambodian side of the court.

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, pointed to the ongoing trial of Duch, the former chief of Tuol Sleng prison, where 16,000 Cambodians were sent to their deaths, as proof of the success of the courts.

Duch, the revolutionary name for Kaing Kek Iev, is the first of five defendants to be tried at a tribunal that was established in 2006 after a decade of negotiations between Cambodia and the UN.

“We have to ask whether this success can be separated from those of the administration,” Phay Siphan said. “It is not unless the administration team provides sufficient service that the trial is as smooth as what we have seen now.”

Duch’s trial has coincided with dire straights for the Cambodian side of the jointly administered tribunal. The Cambodian side, from where allegations of staff kickbacks to senior officials come, struggled to pay its employees in March. That’s because many donors to the tribunal are either waiting for corruption allegations to be resolved or are giving their money to the UN side of the court. A UN investigation into allegations made in 2008 has not been made public.

Taksoe-Jensen said in a statement after failed talks on Wednesday that it had been his goal to establish a system of monitoring that would have re-established credibility for the Cambodian administration. No agreement was reached.

“I have submitted to H.E. Sok An–for his consideration–a draft Exchange of Letters setting out an ethics monitoring mechanism acceptable to the United Nations,” said Peter Taksoe-Jensen in his statement issued late Wednesday, adding that he thought the system would also be acceptable to the government.

Taksoe-Jensen also said the UN side of the tribunal would strengthen its own ethic monitoring, forwarding complaints to UN headquarters in New York and informing the Cambodian government “as appropriate.”

Without commenting directly on the statement or exchange of letters, Phay Siphan said that during negotiations this week, the Cambodian side had suggested including the real name of complainants in any allegations brought forward, to avoid groundless accusations. The UN would not agree.

“The UN does not understand this issue. They don’t know Cambodian culture. We want the complainant to put their name with real ground so that we can look at the complaint together, but what they want tends to dominate [us],” he said. “They just want this or that, so as an independent and sovereign country, and since the court is in the Cambodian jurisdiction, Cambodia must preserve its right to maintain discipline, orders and work effectiveness.”

Taksoe-Jensen said in Wednesday’s statement it was crucial that complainants remain anonymous: “the United Nations continues to believe that for the ethics monitoring system to be credible, the staff should have the freedom to approach the Ethics Monitor of their own choice and put forward complaints without fear of retaliation. Such freedom of choice is an imperative element of a trustworthy ethics monitoring system.”

Taksoe-Jensen’s statement was quickly welcomed by an organization monitoring the court process.

“I support both the UN and Cambodian measures to get rid of the corruption scandal, otherwise at every court hearing or legal process it will become a forum for lawyers and defendants to raise every time,” Long Panhavuth, a program coordinator for the Open Society Justice Initiative, told VOA Khmer by phone.

OSJI was one of the first organizations to air concerns of kickbacks, in 2007.

Staff members allege they must pay a portion of their salaries to senior officials in the Cambodian government in order to work at the tribunal—a not uncommon practice in other sectors of Cambodian government.

“The corruption allegations not only tarnish the government, but the whole court, which is comprised of both the UN and Cambodia,” Long Panhavuth said.

Other civil society organizations expressed concern that short funding would derail the court process. They suggested the UN and Cambodia finalize their differences as soon as possible to ensure transparency in spending donor money and to secure donor confidence.

“We are concerned and sorry,” Kek Galabru, president of the rights group Licadho, told VOA Khmer. “We want to see the court finish its work by at least putting on trial the five defendants so that people are able to know the truth.”

“From what we witnessed at Duch’s hearing, the court is doing their work at an international standard,” she said. “We want to see such a court.”

No date has yet been scheduled for another round of talks, though the government has said it still welcomes a UN return to the table.