The historic effort to bring to justice the leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million Cambodians is under threat from a massive shortfall in funding.
A top official at the UN "crimes against humanity" tribunal told his Cambodian legal staff yesterday that more than 200 of them faced redundancy unless funds are found to pay them within the next six weeks. While it is hoped that the UN and the Cambodian government can bail them out in the short term, the news is the latest in the long line of upsets that have blighted the process.
Helen Jarvis, chief of public affairs at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, who attended the meeting, confirmed that the court's director of the office of administration, Sean Visoth, told Cambodian staff "to hold their breath". "He explained to people that they will get salaries for March, and we expect April but until something comes in, nothing can be guaranteed after that," said Ms Jarvis. "There is a race against time, we are on a cliff edge, it's not normal. But we have laid on the line our achievements. We have laid out what we need. The situation is there for everyone to see."
The trials – which include the prosecution of the Tuol Sleng prison interrogator Kaing Guek Eav, known as "Duch", and "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea – are being jointly handled by legal teams selected by UN and Cambodian officials.
The Cambodian government and the UN are currently waiting for the results of a joint bid for funds made at the UN office in Geneva at the end of January.
If the bid is successful, it would see the tribunal tripling its budget from $56m (£28m) to $170m. The principle donors to the tribunal so far have been Japan, followed by France, Germany, Britain and Australia. However, senior sources at the court say it is extremely unlikely that the full $144m requested will be granted, as they claim the tribunal has been dogged by delays, poor management and allegations of corruption.
Rupert Skilbeck, a British barrister who administrates the international defence team, said: "Our main concern is that if the funds are not provided ... then this will cause a delay in the trial process. It makes it difficult to run a court when half the court are worried they are not receiving their salaries."
The co-prosecutor Robert Petit added: "The funding problem is this: the whole thing was badly designed. The resources that were thought to be needed were not grounded in the reality of these courts and these cases. The numbers that were put forward were estimates. Of course, a lack of funds could jeopardise the trials or make them very difficult to accomplish. But I am sure the Cambodian government, having signed an agreement to see this through to the end, will find funding as a stop gap. That would be a good sign of commitment."
Mr Petit added that one repercussion of the tribunal's budgetary shortfall was that funds had been relocated away from areas where they were needed, such as maintaining transparency.
He said the judges leading the tribunal investigated the allegations against the defendants in secret. Mr Petit added: "I don't think we have done a very good job of outreach, and we need to coherently explain to people what is going on. In my opinion it's a fundamental part of what we are doing. There's no budget for it; and we've asked for more money for that."
Those also facing trial include the former foreign and social affairs ministers Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, along with the former head of state Khieu Samphan. The first public trial, that of Duch, is not expected to begin until October.Reuse content