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Powell pushes war crimes exemption

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US Secretary of State Colin Powell accepts a gift from the National Assembly President, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, at their meeting on June 18. On the right is the US Ambassador to Cambodia, Charles Ray. Powell pushes war crimes exemption

U S Secretary of State Colin Powell asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to sign up to the controversial Article 98 of the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court (ICC) during their meeting on June 19.

Article 98 is being used by the US to establish bilateral agreements to exempt its citizens from prosecution in the court, which was established to prosecute war crimes and genocide.

Some 43 governments-including Egypt, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Tunisia and the Seychelles-are reported to have signed Article 98 to date. But many have told the US that they prefer to remain anonymous until Washington informs Congress of the agreements.

Senior Minister Sok An said Phnom Penh would examine the request.

"Hun Sen gave a positive answer and he confirmed he will order his colleagues to examine and cooperate with the US experts to work on this issue," Sok An said.

Cambodia became the first Southeast Asian country to ratify the ICC treaty in 2002. The US Bush Administration nullified the Clinton government's support for the court, and despite objections from European nations, has worked to achieve exemptions from many ICC signatories.

Under the American Service Members Protection Act of 2002, many countries which recognize the ICC will not be eligible for US military assistance. Cambodia does not at present receive any such assistance.

The meeting with Powell came near the end of five days of bilateral and multilateral talks involving ministers from more than 20 countries.

Cambodia came under pressure to host free and fair elections, move rapidly to approve the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and halt the alleged flow of weapons to the Indonesian province of Aceh, during what was otherwise a mainly successful meeting for the Kingdom.

Ongoing crises in Myanmar and North Korea dominated the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and Powell's visit. Prior to his departure, US senators had lobbied Powell to take a critical stance on Cambodia's election preparations.

Senator Mitch McConnell-a well-known Hun Sen critic-released a statement the day before Powell's arrival here, urging him not to forget Cambodia in the focus on problems in Myanmar.

McConnell said the record of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) over the past 25 years was unimpressive, adding that the country needed new leadership. He said opposition rallies had been attacked by "grenade-throwing terrorists", and said Powell should not be blinded by Phnom Penh's recent crackdown on alleged Islamic terrorists.

"Secretary Powell should temper his comments praising the Cambodian Government for cracking down on terrorism," McConnell said. "The reason terrorists are on Cambodian soil is because of the lawlessness perpetuated by the CPP."

At a June 18 press conference, Powell said he would "urge the government of Cambodia to do everything possible to ensure the upcoming elections meet international standards, particularly with regard to the media". The Cambodian people, he added, deserved "a government with the legitimacy that a free and fair elections will bring".

However, the US foreign secretary reserved much stronger language for Myanmar, and described the detention of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a step in the wrong direction. Suu Kyi was held after a clash between authorities and her supporters on May 30, and has been virtually out of contact since.

"The brutal rulers of Burma need to understand that the only acceptable way forward is to release Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters, and to resume dialogue with her and her party," Powell emphasized at a press conference after the ARF meeting.

The foreign ministers of other Western government representatives echoed that sentiment. Powell also welcomed the unprecedented ASEAN statement on Myanmar. In what some see as a sign of growing maturity, the regional grouping broke its tradition of non-interference at the Ministerial Meeting to discuss Myanmar's domestic political situation.

"We welcomed the assurances given by Myanmar that the measures taken following the incident were temporary, and look forward to the early lifting of restrictions placed on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD [National League for Democracy] members," a joint communiqué issued June 17 noted.

Hun Sen weighed into the debate with a stronger statement at his meeting with Powell. Sok An told reporters that Hun Sen had said that if he were in charge of the problem, he would immediately release Suu Kyi and the opposition members in order to bring about free and fair elections.

The unusual boldness among ASEAN members came after reported lobbying by the Philippines and Thailand, which are concerned that ASEAN's image is being tarnished by the affair.

ASEAN has long been criticized as an ineffective talking shop, but in recent times the group has been forced into taking action on regional terrorism and SARS. Members are concerned that if progress is not made on the issue of reform in Myanmar, then the group will face an embarrassing year in 2006 when that country takes over the chairmanship.

The other big item on the agenda was North Korea's nuclear weapons program. ASEAN urged the resumption of a multilateral dialogue to resolve the issue. North Korea has insisted on one-on-one talks with the US, and snubbed the ARF by sending its 'Ambassador at Large', rather than the customary Foreign Minister.

ASEAN's statement neither condemned North Korea's nuclear program nor called for any action against the communist state, but Powell nonetheless welcomed the statement.

"I was pleased that so many ASEAN and ARF members spoke out strongly on this issue," he told the press conference.

State Department officials briefed the US media on Powell's ARF address, in which he called on ASEAN to maintain pressure on North Korea to enter multilateral discussions over its nuclear weapons program.

Powell was reported as saying that ASEAN's help "in keeping pressure on North Korea is absolutely necessary if we are to achieve a diplomatic solution that leaves the peninsula, the region and the world safer".

"This is not a bilateral matter between the US and North Korea," Powell said. "It affects every nation in the region that would fall under the arc of a North Korean missile. And thus, it must be solved as a multilateral problem."

Cambodia suffered an embarrassing moment during the conference when Indonesian officials briefed members of the media on arms smuggling from Cambodia to the troubled Indonesian province of Aceh.

An Indonesian official confirmed to the Post that its authorities were certain that Cambodian small arms were falling into the hands of rebels in Aceh. He cited intelligence that Indonesians were seeking to buy weapons in Cambodia two years ago.

It was also suggested that Thai authorities had captured a truck carrying weapons in southern Thailand in 2002, and that Indonesian authorities have seized several ships carrying illegal weapons in recent years.

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