Saturday, May 02, 2009

War Crimes: Khmer Rouge Tribunal marred by corruption allegations

By Robert Carmichael - IPS
Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

PHNOM PENH, May 1 (IPS) - The voice of Comrade Duch reverberates daily through the speakers at the 500- seat courtroom in Phnom Penh as he gives testimony in his trial for crimes against humanity.

Duch was the former commander of the notorious Khmer Rouge execution centre S21 in Phnom Penh in which 17,000 people are thought to have died between 1975 and 1979.

Another four senior surviving Khmer Rouge leaders are in custody awaiting trial.

The tribunal, a hybrid creation between the United Nations and the Cambodian government, has seen a number of controversies in its long gestation and brief life. The latest - and also one that crops up often - involves plausible allegations that Cambodian staff on the administration side of the tribunal paid kickbacks to senior staffers in return for their jobs.

This led donor nations to refuse to release more funds until the government established a mechanism to allow local staff to report corruption without fear of being fired. It hasn’t yet done so to the U.N.’s satisfaction, so the result is that Cambodian tribunal staff - some 250 people - have been paid late a number of times in the past year. That has happened again this month.

In early April a senior U.N. negotiator arrived in a final bid to hammer out a deal with the government to set up the anti-corruption mechanism. One day of talks became two days, which went into a third. But out of the blue the Australia government stunned observers by announcing during the U.N. negotiations that it wanted the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), which is holding back a half-million dollar Australian loan, to release that cash to pay court salaries.

The government saw the move as an endorsement of its position. The U.N. was undermined, and the meeting broke up without a deal.

Observers of the trial process were staggered. Was Australia’s timing accidental or by design they wondered?

Heather Ryan is a trial monitor for the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), an NGO funded by billionaire George Soros.

"It is inexplicable to me why the Australian government would take a step like that," Ryan says. "It so obviously does undermine the negotiating position of the U.N. [and others] who are trying to eliminate or reduce corruption in the court."

The Australian embassy in Phnom Penh would not comment - by its own admission the matter is too sensitive - and referred enquiries to Canberra. An emailed reply from the Australian government department of foreign affairs did not directly answer questions over what had happened. Instead the reply laid out a series of broader strokes.

The government spokesman wrote that Australia’s request that the UNDP release the money was based on two points. The first was the "broad progress" made by the Cambodian government to address the corruption issue. The second was to ensure that the court’s work would continue at this critical juncture."

"Australia’s decision to make this request took into account the views of other donors and the United Nations, including in Phnom Penh," the spokesman wrote - although he did not say whether the other partners agreed with the decision. "The Cambodian government is keenly aware of the need to ensure that corruption concerns are addressed."

If the undermining of the U.N.’s negotiating position was the first surprise, then the second was the refusal by UNDP to release the funds.

UNDP country manager Jo Scheuer explains that the organisation can only release the money once the corruption allegations are addressed by Phnom Penh, reforms are put in place to make sure it cannot happen again, and money previously released by UNDP is accounted for.

Scheuer says one reason UNDP rejected Australia’s request is because the tribunal must meet international standards on the dispensation of justice. Allegations of corruption undermine that.

"The second reason is because we are the fund manager. We are the ones accountable for the proper use of what at the end of the day is taxpayers’ money," Scheuer says. "We have said for the last nine months that we need to see allegations resolved and mechanisms put up before we can resume our role."

Court-watchers are concerned that the allegations could damage the trial - possibly fatally.

Perhaps more significant than corruption allegations on the administration side, are several reports in the media that some Cambodian judges paid kickbacks to secure their posts. As Scheuer points out, some of the defence lawyers have already stated that the corruption allegations mean their clients cannot get a fair trial.

But Scheuer says UNDP has seen no evidence of corruption involving Cambodian judges. "I can 100 percent say of all the work we have done, the extent of our knowledge of the allegations is limited to the administration of the court," he says.

That leaves the court’s immediate concern the payment of April salaries. They will certainly be paid late, says tribunal spokesperson Helen Jarvis, but she is confident money will come in to cover the salaries.

But, it won’t come from UNDP. Scheuer says that even if funds were approved for immediate release - and they have not been - it would take another eight weeks to work through the disbursement process. The only logical conclusion is that someone else will pay this month’s bill.

Ryan at the OSJI says it is distinctly possible that other donor nations could follow Australia’s lead in disbursing funds before an anti-corruption mechanism is set up. And she fears that could further undermine the U.N.’s position.

"We are watching carefully to see if other donors follow suit with [Australia] or if they continue to stand firm [on] an adequate agreement before they release any additional funds to the Cambodian side," Ryan says.

Monthly salaries aside, more important is the damage this episode has done to the court’s reputation. Scheuer says all parties want to see the problem resolved so that comment about the court can revolve around the delivery of justice rather than corruption.

There remains much concern that the court could yet collapse. If that happened sooner rather than later, it would leave Comrade Duch as the only one to face trial for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime that killed as many as two million people.
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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