Cambodian staff at the Khmer Rouge crimes tribunal have not been paid in three months. As a result at least 100 of them plan to go on strike indefinitely. UN chief Ban Ki-moon warns that the court's survival is at risk.
The national side of the tribunal needs around $3 million USD to take it through to the end of the year. For a court that has cost nearly $200 million to date, that is not a large sum.
In calling on countries to donate, Ban Ki-moon said the court had achieved "important successes in prosecuting the brutal crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge regime", yet was now "in crisis" due to a lack of funding.
The very survival of the court is now in question,” Ban said at the Dutch city of The Hague on August 28. "Financial failure would be a tragedy for the people of Cambodia, who have waited so long for justice. It would also be a severe blow to our shared commitment to international justice."
What Ban didn't say, however, was that the court's collapse would also be a significant embarrassment for the United Nations, which has invested heavily in it.
Cap in hand
The war crimes tribunal is known formally as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), a name that hints at its hybrid structure: part Cambodian and part international.
Under the court's rules, it is the Cambodian government's role to ensure there is cash for the national side. To date Phnom Penh has largely relied on donors to foot the bill. The United Nations is responsible for funding the international side of the court, and for now, that part has enough money.
But in a scramble to encourage countries to contribute financially to the national side, Ban recently sent special envoy David Scheffer to four countries in the regional Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.
Scheffer, who was accompanied by Cambodian government official Keo Remy, came up empty-handed, but in emailed comments said he believed the countries he visited “are considering financial support … but the timing of that support remains uncertain”.
The envoy said he had once again asked the Cambodian government to help fund the salaries of national staff members at the tribunal.
"[And] there are urgent discussions and meetings taking place at the United Nations in New York as well to address this issue," he said, adding that the UN was working hard to raise funds.
Despite the UN’s efforts, the strike is scheduled to begin on Sunday, September 1st. ECCC spokesman Neth Pheaktra says it will continue until staff members are paid. Among those taking action are the interpreters and translators, whose function is central to this tri-lingual court.
Former Khmer Rouge official Khieu Samphan is charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity
"We don’t want [to strike], but we have no choice because we cannot work without payment," he says.
The strike comes as the court prepares for closing arguments in the first of several mini-trials planned for two surviving Khmer Rouge leaders. The original indictment against the ex-leaders was so complicated and would take so long that the court decided to split their trial into a string of smaller trials to run consecutively. The first of those mini-trials recently finished hearing evidence.
Nuon Chea, who was Pol Pot’s deputy, and Khieu Samphan, who was head of state, are charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in the deaths of two million people during the movement’s catastrophic 1975-79 rule. The defendants, both in their 80s, have denied the charges.
Neth Pheaktra agrees that the strike poses a risk for Case 002, as the trial of the elderly former leaders is known. It has already lost two defendants: Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister who died in March; and his wife, Ieng Thirith, who is believed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and who was last year ruled unfit for trial.
Unless funds are found soon, there is a sizeable chance that the closing arguments scheduled for mid-October for the first of Case 002’s mini-trials could be delayed.
“For example relating to the translation of the documents – the Trial Chamber has a lot of documents, and other parties also have a lot of documents to translate, to prepare for the closing statements," he says.
The ECCC is not least a victim of its own structure: its hybrid format has, for example, allowed the Cambodian government to pressure national staff not to get involved with investigations that it regards as politically objectionable. Such meddling is one reason why donors are keeping their wallets closed.
Long Panhavuth, a program officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, which monitors the court, says donors and the UN should be more transparent about such problems. He says that if the money does not come in soon, there is a high chance that the closing arguments will be delayed.
"So it’s very important that anyone now – including the government, the donors, the UN – injects some money so that the court can continue," he says. At this stage, he adds, blaming one side or another is pointless.
The tribunals' hybrid format has allowed Phnom Penh to pressure staff not to get involved with certain investigations
"It’s important that the success and the failure of the tribunal [does] not lie with the Cambodian government alone," he says. “It has to lie with all relevant stakeholders – the government, the UN and the donors."
Long Panhavuth believes funding problems have now eclipsed political interference as the main threat to the court’s survival. “The funding issue … is a big crisis, and it would be a shame if the court collapses because of that. The court was set up for the victims," he says. "It can’t betray the victims."