PHNOM PENH —
Around 100 staff members at Cambodia’s cash-strapped war crimes court will begin an open-ended strike Sunday because they have not received their salaries since May. The pending strike has prompted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to call for donations to the court if it is not to collapse.
Tribunal spokesman Neth Pheaktra said none of the 250 Cambodian employees at the Khmer Rouge tribunal has been paid in three months, and their situation has become intolerable.
The national side of the court needs $3 million to fund its operations through to the end of the year.
Neth Pheaktra said staff at the court - known formally as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC - do not want to strike, and are well aware that this action will effectively halt court proceedings.
“The Cambodian staff have the majority in the court and [if] they don’t come to work, it means the function of the court will be blocked. And if no translator, no interpreter, and other section does not work, it means that the work of the ECCC will block - and we take the high risk to delay the process. And we don’t want, but we have no choice because we cannot work without payment,” said Pheaktra.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal is a hybrid court with an international component and a national one.
The United Nations is responsible for securing funding for the international side. That part of the court has enough money for now.
The problem is on the national side - which is the responsibility of the Cambodian government. To date, Phnom Penh has relied on donors to fund the bulk of that work, but, not for the first time, the money has dried up, and that is why the Cambodian staff have not been paid.
But for the court to collapse for want of a few million dollars would be an embarrassment for the United Nations. That is one reason U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked countries to donate.
Speaking at The Hague Wednesday, Ban said the tribunal had achieved some notable victories. “Yet today the Court is in crisis. The voluntary contributions on which the Court depends have run dry. The very survival of the Court [is] now in question," he stated. "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.”
Earlier this month Ban sent his envoy, David Scheffer, to four Asian nations in order to raise funds.
In an email to VOA, Scheffer said that the countries he had visited - Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia - were considering financial support. However, there is no indication of when the cash would come, assuming it comes at all.
Scheffer said urgent discussions were taking place at U.N. headquarters in New York. He has also asked the Cambodian government to step in and pay national staff.
The timing of the strike has come at a key moment. The court is preparing for closing arguments in the first mini-trial of two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge: Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
Nuon Chea was Pol Pot’s deputy, while Khieu Samphan was head of state of the regime that is believed responsible for the deaths of two million people between 1975 and 1979.
The court recently finished hearing evidence against the two, and is scheduled to hear closing arguments in mid-October.
But that date has already been pushed back once, and unless money is found soon for the Cambodian staff, it could well be delayed again.
With both men in their eighties - and with fellow defendant Ieng Sary, who was the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister, dying during trial earlier this year - the risks of justice delayed are obvious enough.