As the Khmer Rouge tribunal was mired in budget woes in August last year – five months after unpaid national staff walked out on the job and weeks before they would do so again – David Scheffer, the UN’s chief court fundraiser, travelled to four ASEAN countries in search of money.
Visiting some of the bloc’s wealthiest member states – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – Scheffer aimed to drum up long-awaited funding for the beleaguered UN-backed court, its national side in particular, from regional donors.
“My best judgement is that these ASEAN governments are considering financial support for the ECCC [the tribunal’s formal acronym], but the timing of that support remains uncertain,” a hopeful Scheffer told the Post after the trip – not his first attempt to raise funds in the region – on which he was accompanied by government officials.
It is still uncertain. A year later, only Malaysia has stepped up to the plate. Its $50,000 contribution to the national side in July brought total ASEAN contributions to the court since its inception to just $74,331. (Thailand contributed the rest back in 2006.) To put it in perspective, the court has spent more than $216 million since 2006.
By way of comparison, Luxembourg, a tiny country in Europe, has contributed more. And it’s not alone.
Other states that have individually beat out the combined donations of Cambodia’s nine ASEAN partners include Japan, Australia, the US, the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the European Union, South Korea, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Spain, New Zealand, India, Austria, Ireland and Belgium.
Though the Cambodian government is responsible for funding the national side, it has often relied on intervention from foreign donors to avert financial shortfalls and ensure staffers are paid.
Traditional donors Sweden and Norway have stepped in on the government’s behalf this year to cover second- and third-quarter salaries for Cambodian employees.
While many ASEAN states are still developing countries – with notable exceptions, such as Singapore – even symbolic contributions from them have been sorely lacking, said Youk Chhang, director at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which researches Khmer Rouge history. By largely failing to support the court after many years, he added, ASEAN states have lent credence to the notion that they still see human rights as a Western concept and that the supposed unity of the region extends little beyond the economic sphere.
“People all over the world feel responsible. They feel an obligation to do this, and that’s what we want to see. And these are Cambodia’s neighbours.… [They are] so insincere.”
Chhang says he has lobbied officials from ASEAN countries for years, but they have “ignored” calls for help, citing the bloc’s nonintervention principles, despite many appeals also having been made directly by the government.
“This is not about Cambodia, it’s about global issues. ASEAN cannot say we cannot interfere with Cambodia’s internal issues.… No, genocide, crimes against humanity are global issues.… So any means – I’m not demanding money – but any means ASEAN can contribute would show political responsibility to prevent genocide.”
But in a region where human rights are often protected on paper but not in practice, and where many leaders have chequered histories, ASEAN governments have misgivings about supporting this kind of judicial process, analysts say.
“Some ASEAN governments are wary of endorsing a UN-backed human rights process in their neigbourhood – a precedent that could come back to haunt them,” said John D Ciorciari, a Cambodia observer at the Gerald R Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and co-author of Hybrid Justice, a recent book on the tribunal. “Some also have their own histories of engagement with Cambodia.”
After the fall of Democratic Kampuchea in 1979 and the installation of a Vietnamese-backed government, Singapore and Thailand backed resistance forces that included the Khmer Rouge on the Thai-Cambodia border. Thailand also allowed ex-DK leaders to use its soil as a safe haven until the late 1990s.
However, Cambodians have no desire to take “a revenge position”, Chhang said. Scheffer, whose official title is UN Secretary General’s Special Expert on United Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials, said last month that he continues to lobby ASEAN diplomats together with Cambodian government officials.
“We knew from the beginning that it will take time to orient ASEAN governments to the work of the ECCC,” he said in an email.
“The Cambodian Government had demonstrated a keen interest in obtaining ASEAN financial support for the Court, for which we at the United Nations are grateful. Our joint efforts are beginning to produce results, with the all important contribution from Malaysia. I remain hopeful that some other ASEAN governments will follow suit as soon as possible, and efforts with these governments continue.”
But while Scheffer said last year that ASEAN funding was critical to the future of the tribunal, he expressed confidence that the donor base was continuing to expand in other regions, such as the Arab world.
“So while ASEAN governments remain very important targets for contributing to the national budget of the Court, other governments are also part of the donor base.”
But according to Ciorciari, donating provides “a relatively easy opportunity for ASEAN to boost the credibility of its own expressed commitment to human rights”.
“The court has many problems, but an ASEAN member is nonetheless asking for help to deal with some of the most heinous crimes in Southeast Asian history,” he said.
Diplomatic representatives of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Thailand did not respond to requests for comment. The Myanmar and Laos embassies could not be reached, while a Vietnamese Embassy spokesman declined to comment.
The Indonesian Embassy’s first secretary Muhsinin Dolisada said Indonesia was still “considering” whether it would donate to the tribunal, and said that since Scheffer visited Jakarta last year, his country has been preoccupied with elections, which took place in April and July.
“Whether [his request] is rejected or accepted, we have not reached any decision yet,” Dolisada said.
The tribunal’s national side continues to seek financial support from outside donors, including ASEAN countries, to make up a budget shortfall, according to Ek Tha, deputy director of the press department at the Council of Ministers.
Chhang believes ASEAN states still have time to “rethink” how they see the court. “ASEAN has a great opportunity; the door is still open and they should not miss it.… There is a role for ASEAN that they have not yet fulfilled.”