Cambodia War Crimes Tribunal Comes to Grinding Halt Because of Lack of Funds

Cambodia’s beleaguered war crimes tribunal is facing another obstacle: translators have gone on strike, protesting months of work without pay, and the one active trial has been adjourned “indefinitely.” Only international donors can save the day.

The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC, as it is known) is currently trying Case 002, in an effort to finally dole out long-awaited justice to the top surviving leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that killed millions of Cambodians in the 1970s.  The defendants are octogenarians and growing more decrepit by the day.

Local staff at the ECCC have gone without pay since December, as donor nations have failed to contribute to the ECCC pot on time.  Spokespeople have said they’ve appealed to donors for more operating funds but don’t know when they’ll actually come through.

36 countries contribute to the UN-backed Tribunal, and over 50% 0f that funding comes from Japan. Germany, France, the UK, the US, and Australia are also big donors; UK Foreign Minister William Hague pledged a cool $2.2 million to the cause at the end of February.

Translators work in the three languages of the proceedings, French, English, and Khmer, thus performing a rather indispensable function in the diverse ECCC courtroom. Some murmur it’s possible that the translator’s walkout is an attempt — likely orchestrated from above — to convince foreign donors to cough up even more funds to keep the slow-moving and expensive court alive long to finish off Case 002 before the elderly defendants pass away.

Money has been a constant problem for the tribunal: keeping an international war tribunal alive is exceedingly expensive work, and the global economy has only continued to tumble downhill since proceedings began in 2006. The devastating Japanese tsunami of 2011 has also hit the coffers of the court’s most prolific donor. 

Further, some donors suspect that Cambodia and the court is doing less than it could to keep costs down, which reached $141.1 million from 2006 to 2011, according to court budget statements — $107.9 million of which came from international donors.  The European Union has publicly called on Cambodia to increase its pay-in to the court last month, withholding a grant until “the contractual obligations of the grant agreement are fully met,” according to Reuters.  

Special Expert on United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials David Scheffer suggested in the New York Times this summer that a modern day Andrew Carnegie with deep pockets and philanthropic impulses could keep the court afloat: in the absence of such a legal minded angel, it’s quite possible that the court might continue to come to intermittent and damaging halts — slowing down an already very overdue passage of justice.