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Tribunal Walkout a Worrying Sign for Court, Analysts Say

FILE - In this file photo released by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, court officers of the U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal are seen through windows during a hearing of former Khmer Rouge top leaders in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

WASHINGTON DC - This week’s walkout of some 250 Cambodian staff at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal has raised new questions about the funding obligations of the international community and the Cambodian government. But tribunal observers say the court’s funding is the joint responsibility of each, as the court continues to pursue only its second trial to date.

“I think the donors and the international community and the Cambodian government need to decide whether they are going to fulfill their financial obligations to ensure that all pending cases which are now open at the court proceed to their judicial conclusion,” James Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, told VOA Khmer by phone on Tuesday. “The tribunal was set up to render justice. Cases have been launched. It would be a tragedy if those cases could not be completed because adequate financing was not secured.”

Cambodian staff have not been paid on their half of the court since May, prompting a walkout of staff this week. The Cambodian side of the court is short nearly $3 million for operations, but it has faced ongoing allegations of mismanagement and corruption as the hybrid court tries senior Khmer Rouge leaders for their responsibility for atrocities committed by the regime.

Goldston said the question now is whether there is enough “political commitment” to continue funding the court.

“I think the work stoppages, which is what we are seeing at the court, are evidence of the extremity of the problem, and there is a need for donors and for the Cambodian government to face up to their responsibility, to finish what they started,” he said. “If ultimately funds are not secured to allow the existing Case 002 to be completed, or other cases which are in the investigation stage, to reach their judicial conclusion, that would be a profound failure, and that would be a terrible signal to all the victims of the crimes which are at issue in this court, and it would unfortunately be a setback for international justice, I think, for the principle of accountability for grave crimes.”

Nushin Sarkarati, a legal official at the Center for Justice and Accountability, said the walkouts are not within the control of the Cambodian government or the UN, but “what is within their control is the management of the court’s budget and the salaries of the staff.”

“The UN and the Cambodian government made a commitment to the victims and the international community that senior leaders and persons most responsible for Khmer Rouge-era atrocities would be put to trial,” she said in an e-mail. “Both the UN and the Cambodian government must ensure that the court has all the tools it needs to execute this commitment.”

The strikes are preventing the case against senior leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan from moving forward, she said. “The Cambodian staff is essential to the operation of the court. Without the staff, the court is forced to postpone the hearings, which in turn delays the sentencing of the two accused on trial.”

Peter Maguire, a Khmer Rouge researcher and author of “Facing Death in Cambodia,” said the staff walkouts signaled another failure for the beleaguered court.

“With two of the four defendants dead or out of commission, the [tribunal] has failed to do even half of the things the UN and their cheerleaders in the human rights industry promised,” he said. “Cambodia’s mixed tribunal will serve as a cautionary tale of how not to conduct a war crimes trial. The UN should shut up about further trials already; they need to finish trying the senile defendants and pack it up.”

In New York, Eri Kaneko, a spokeswoman for the United Nations, said the UN remains committed to seeing the tribunal funded.

“The secretary-general calls on the international community to come forward with the financing to continue this most important judicial process—not just for the weeks ahead, but to see all the cases through to their conclusion,” she said in an e-mail.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement: “I want to use this opportunity to make a special appeal on behalf of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. This court has achieved important successes in prosecuting the brutal crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime. Yet today the court is in crisis.”

Where voluntary contributions to the court have “run dry,” and with Cambodian staff unpaid, he said, “the very survival of the court is now in question.”

“Financial failure would be a tragedy for the people of Cambodia, who have waited so long for justice,” he said. “It would also be a severe blow to our shared commitment to international justice. I call on the international community to come forward with the financing to continue this most important judicial process—not just for the weeks ahead, but to see all the cases through to their conclusion.”