Money woes threaten Cambodia's Khmer Rouge tribunal

The tribunal trying Cambodia's former leaders says it needs to triple its $56.3 million budget to try up to eight defendants.

Heng Sinith/AP
Fits and starts: Judges and court officers with the UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh seen on Thursday. The court says it needs $170 million to continue.

The top surviving Khmer Rouge leader appeared in court this week for the first time, three decades after the virulent communist regime allegedly oversaw the deaths of some 1.7 million people in Cambodia.

Nuon Chea, thought by many to be the movement's chief ideologue, is facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity at a United Nations-backed tribunal that began work in 2006.

His presence in the docket should be a sign of success for the court, which many hope will undercut decades of impunity that have plagued this tiny nation. But the fitful progress of Cambodia's hybrid tribunal has once again bogged down under budget woes, a lingering management scandal, and real worries that the tribunal's five aging defendants could die before judgments come in.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) now plans to spend $170 million to try up to eight defendants, a process it anticipates could take until March 2011, according to a Jan. 30 budget estimate.

That's a big increase from the court's initial three-year budget of $56.3 million – an amount unfathomable to many ordinary people in Cambodia who live on less than $1 a day.

Helen Jarvis, a tribunal spokeswoman, emphasizes that Cambodia's court looks like a bargain compared with tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, which have cost about $150 million a year. The Cambodian side of the court will start to run out of money in a matter of weeks, but donors have yet to publicly commit any funds.

"We recognize that a certain increase of the budget is justified," said one Phnom Penh diplomat on condition of anonymity. "We, however, are waiting for official clarification of these new figures and for detailed explanation of the considerable increase," he added.

Donor skepticism surged last year after reports revealed severe problems in hiring and management on the Cambodian side of the court. Allegations that Cambodian staff had to give money in exchange for their jobs have yet to be put to rest.

Now donors are looking for reassurance that their money will be well spent. The European Commission, which funds the Cambodian side of the court, has initiated an independent review to determine whether the court has made adequate reforms. Results may come in this month.

The United States, which has funded every major multinational criminal tribunal except the International Criminal Court (ICC), has yet to provide direct funding to the ECCC, despite signs late last year that the State Department was warming to the idea. President Bush's fiscal year 2009 budget request, released this week, doesn't include money for the tribunal, and the US Embassy in Phnom Penh says the issue is still being reviewed.

Some Cambodia watchers in Congress, which barred direct funding pending assurances that the court can meet international standards, remain skeptical.

"Congress remains sober about Cambodia, generally, and the KRT [Khmer Rouge tribunal], specifically," a senior congressional aide said by e-mail. "Those donors who have put funding on the table are griping how dollars were used and abused, and the administrative shortfall/concerns are well known. We will watch closely those international jurists who wrestle with the challenges every day; the greater stink they raise over corruption or political interference, the less chance Congress or other donors will want to pony up."

Meanwhile, the slow drama of justice plays out in a courtroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Nuon Chea on Thursday asked to be released from the tribunal's detention center, where he has been held since his Sept. 19 arrest. He rose to address the court with the help of two guards. "I have no intention to flee my beloved country."

Chuon Choeun, a farmer brought to view the hearing by a nonprofit group, was one of about 100 Cambodians in attendance. He had never seen Nuon Chea before and even though he couldn't understand much of the legal rules under discussion, he found his first glimpse of the man he once believed was all powerful both bracing and strange.

He expected Nuon Chea to look more brutish, somehow. "His face looks fine. He's not nasty. His face is finer than mine."

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