Cambodia's genocide trials threatened by funding crisis
Friday, March 14, 2008
PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Cambodia's top administrator to the country's Khmer Rouge tribunal this week gathered together his more than 200 staff to break the news that after April they would not be paid.
The stunning announcement by Sean Visoth is the most tangible sign yet that the UN-backed genocide court, established to prosecute leaders of the regime that was toppled nearly 30 years ago, is going bankrupt months before the first trials are expected to open.
The court's top officials hold out hope that the international community or the Cambodian government will come up with the millions needed to keep the tribunal running.
But the funding crisis has become the most serious threat yet to the proceedings, already beleaguered by allegations of corruption and mismanagement amid fears of political interference.
"It is hard to imagine that the court can continue to function without funds," said tribunal spokeswoman Helen Jarvis, explaining that the Cambodian side of the joint court would go broke in April.
The UN-supported half of the tribunal is funded for several months more, but would also need a significant influx of cash after that.
"As the time for expiration of existing funds draws nearer, the situation obviously becomes more acute," Jarvis told AFP.
Originally budgeted at 56.3 million dollars over three years, the tribunal's operating costs have ballooned as the enormity of the job of prosecuting those behind Cambodia's darkest chapter becomes more apparent.
Up to two million people died of starvation and overwork, or were executed as the communist Khmer Rouge dismantled modern Cambodian society in a bid to forge an agrarian utopia during their 1975-79 rule.
After nearly a decade of wrangling, the UN and Cambodia opened the tribunal in 2006. The regime's top five surviving leaders were arrested last year in what many saw as a sign of the sluggish court's gathering momentum.
But those close to the proceedings say staff are overwhelmed, in part by paperwork, particularly the task of translating tens of thousands of documents into either Cambodian, French or English, the three languages used by the court.
"The original assumptions about the resources needed and the tasks to be accomplished were inaccurate as is often the case in these tribunals," said co-prosecutor Robert Petit, who like other court officials has been critical of the tribunal's funding structure and projected timeframe.
"The original budget was inadequate and contained many gaps in essential areas," said the UN's tribunal spokesman Peter Foster.
The UN and Cambodian government have requested an additional 114 million dollars that would allow the court to add hundreds of new staff and remain in operation until 2011.
But so far none of the tribunal's principle donors -- Japan, France, Britain, Germany and Australia -- has stepped forward to commit more money.
"A lack of funds could certainly delay the proceedings," Foster said.
Another obstacle in the oft-stalled proceedings would be a further blow to the tribunal's credibility at a time when support is crucial.
Observers say that despite the arrests, donors do not want the tribunal to be a show-trial that risks being commandeered by Cambodia's government, which includes many former Khmer Rouge.
Two critical audits detailing hiring irregularities, with lucrative jobs allegedly going to under-qualified candidates, have also made donors hesitant to throw their full support behind the tribunal, the funding for which remains a fraction of that received by other international courts.
"The donors received the revised budget estimate at the end of January.... They have asked for further clarification in a number of areas and that is now being provided by the court," the UN's Foster said.
He added that donors are expected to meet before the end of the month to discuss the tribunal's money crunch, and that a sliver of optimism remains.
"Neither the international community nor the United Nations want to see the court fail, especially since we have successfully come so far along in the process," he said.
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