U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has thrown her support behind the U.N. human rights office in Cambodia, and also addressed the issue of Cambodia's debt to the United States during a visit to Phnom Penh as part of two-week long tour of Asia.
The Cambodian government wants the United Nations to close its human rights office here. But Secretary Clinton defended the office Monday, calling it "a valuable resource."
"It provides technical assistance to the government," Clinton said. "It also works with these NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that are in Cambodia, both Cambodian NGOs and international NGOs on a variety of concerns including human rights, trafficking in persons, and the rule of law." Clinton added, "So, the High Commissioner's office is active in ways that we think are very complementary to what the Cambodian government is committed to doing, and we think the work is important and we would like to see it continue."
While she endorsed the work of the U.N.-sponsored tribunal prosecuting the leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Clinton said her immediate priority is to ensure there is sufficient money to fund the next trial. This second case of four Khmer Rouge leaders is set to begin next year, and she estimates will cost up to 50 million dollars to complete.
But the Cambodian government has said it wants the international tribunal to shut down after that case and not pursue more. Clinton noted the government's concerns about political instability should the tribunal prosecute more cases, a concern many human rights groups do not share.
"That is something that we in the international community should consult closely with the Cambodian government on," said Clinton. "But the first piece of business is getting 002 to trial. And I want to see that happen as soon as possible. So I will be personally reaching out to help raise the money to get that done," she said.
More than a million Cambodians died of starvation, illness and execution when the Khmer Rouge ruled the country in the 1970s. The tribunal concluded its case, against a prison commandant, a few months ago.
Clinton indicated the United States is willing to consider different options regarding $445 million that Cambodia owes it from the 1970s. The debt stemmed from U.S. support for the Lon Nol government, which ran Cambodia from 1970 to 1975 before the nation fell to the Khmer Rouge.
Phnom Penh says the debt should be canceled. But talks on resolving the debt have not been held since 2006.
"We have agreed that the United States will send a team of experts as soon as possible to resume discussions over ways to settle this debt," said Clinton. "The discussions as you know ended in 2006. We very much want to see this matter resolved."
She added, however, that the United States would be interested in seeing the money spent in Cambodia on improving education or environmental protection, instead of taking a direct repayment.