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Australia's Role as Peacemaker: Cambodia First and Last?

Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Former Australian Foreign Minister and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, to Research Workshop Australia as Peacemaker? Conflict Resolution in Australian Foreign Policy, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, 8 April 2016


Setting the Context. The diplomatic initiative we took in 1989-90 over Cambodia does seem to remain Australia’s best remembered and most heralded peacemaking achievement – taking ‘peacemaking’ to mean diplomatic negotiation or mediation, in the context either of interstate or intrastate conflict, with or without the participation of other external parties, aimed at achieving the cessation of hostilities, the stabilization of the situation on the ground, and/or a durable political settlement.

But Cambodia was by no means either the first or last significant contribution Australia has made to regional, and indeed global, peace and security. We have made quite major contributions over the years to treaty-making and institution building in peace and security related areas, quite apart from US-alliance related initiatives. Dr HV Evatt’s contributions to the founding of the UN back in 1945 are properly the stuff of legend. The Hawke-Keating Government played a crucial role in bringing the Chemical Weapons Convention to conclusion, and both Labor and Coalition governments had important inputs into the crafting of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Australia was a central player in the birth not only of APEC but the ASEAN Regional Forum, and in the evolution of the East Asia Summit into what will hopefully become the centrepiece in future of regional security, as well as economic, architecture. Perhaps also worth mentioning in the context of international rule-making and institution-building are the contributions Australia and Australians have made to norm generating – most notably through the Canberra Commission’s articulation of the case for nuclear disarmament in 1996, and the birth and evolution over the last fifteen years of the doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P).

Australia has also made many significant contributions in providing military, police and civilian personnel to internationally-mandated peace-keeping and peace-enforcement operations, some forty of them since 1947. Until the late 1980s our military commitments were quite small-scale support operations, but beginning with Namibia in 1989 have been quite sizeable, often battalion-scale plus, as with our deployments in the 1990s in Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, and above all in East Timor in 1999, and between 2003 and 2013 in the Solomon Islands. There was also the important participation of military observers in Bouganville between 1997 and 2003. Although many hundreds of Australians are still engaged in non-UN military operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it must be noted that our contributions in recent years to blue helmet missions have been very much in decline, with fewer than 50 ADF and AFP personnel now in the field, ranking us, as at December 2015, 84th out of 123 military and police contributors – not where a country of our size and capability ought to be.

It is also the case that Australia, and individual Australians, have played a role, with varying degrees of impact and success, in a number of other peacemaking situations apart from Cambodia. High-profile roles were played by Owen Dixon as UN envoy in Kashmir 1950, with no success, but earning respect on both sides; by Robert Menzies in 1956 to try to defuse the crisis over Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, with no success at all on any front; by Malcolm Fraser, with the Hawke Government’s support, in working with some success toward the end of apartheid in South Africa; by Ninian Stephen in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s, in a way that is generally credited with contributing to the Good Friday Agreement; and more recently by Alexander Downer as UN envoy in Cyprus, with nothing much to show for his efforts. So far as government peacemaking efforts are concerned, the record is equally mixed. Although New Zealand led the Bouganville peace negotiations from 1997, because we were seen by both sides as being too close to the other, Australia did play an important support role, with Downer in that case very productively engaged as Foreign Minister. Also in the South Pacific, calming the situation in the Solomon Islands also required substantial diplomatic activity as well as a troop commitment.

On the other hand, whether John Howard’s encouragement of an independence referendum in East Timor in 1999 counts as a peacemaking effort is open to question, given its explosive consequences. Equally I don’t think my own many efforts behind the scenes as Foreign Minister, all ultimately unsuccessful, to encourage Indonesia to change course in East Timor or to persuade the military regime to change course in Myanmar, should count as mediation attempts; nor should aid-focused efforts to improve governance and reduce underlying tensions, such as has happened more recently, for example, in Mindanao, although sporadic engagements of this sort sometime seem to be so counted in the international data bases. However these things are counted, the bottom line is that, although we have periodically been intensely engaged in particular conflict resolution issues – particularly in the late ‘40s, mid ‘70s, and through a good part of the ‘80s and ‘90s – our efforts over the years have been nothing like as systematic or substantial as those of countries like Norway, Sweden or Switzerland.

Cambodia. Against that background Cambodia, although it is hardly the only positive thing we have done, does seem to remain our most visibly successful contribution to international peacemaking. What did we manage to accomplish there, how did we go about it, and what lessons can be drawn from that experience?

In the late 1980s, Cambodia was on its knees. Since 1970 the country had been ravaged successively by massive US bombing, by civil war, by a genocidal reign of terror exceeded only by the Nazis, by invasion and by civil war again, resulting overall in the deaths of some two million Cambodians and the destruction of the lives of many more. The Vietnamese invasion in November 1978 brought to an end the worst of the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, but it triggered a new civil war. Recurring bloody military engagements, guerilla assaults and ambushes, the further displacement of large numbers of civilians, and the inability of life generally to return to any kind of pre-1970 normality, all took their further toll of an exhausted and suffering people.

The continuing conflict was incredibly complex, being played out at three distinct levels. Internally there were four warring factions – with Hun Sen's Government waged against a fragile coalition of the non-communist Sihanoukists and KPNLF (Son Sann) and communist Khmer Rouge, and each group was immensely distrustful of all the others. Regionally, Vietnam supported Hun Sen and the six ASEAN members of the time supported his opponents. And at the great power level China supported the Khmer Rouge and Prince Sihanouk (as he then was); the Soviet Union supported Hun Sen; and the United States supporting the two non-communist resistance groups.

A number of international attempts were made to negotiate a return to normality, in which Australia under Bill Hayden, as Foreign Minister after 1983, had played an exploratory and supporting role. But all had all failed, most recently the Paris Conference on Cambodia (PICC) jointly chaired by France and Indonesia in July-August 1989. Hopes for a breakthrough had risen following Vietnam’s announcement early in 1989 that it would withdraw all its troops by September, and the combined resistance forces of Prince Sihanouk, Son Sann and the Khmer Rouge, together with their international backers, agreed to a transitional administration in which all four internal parties – including the Khmer Rouge – would have a place. But Hun Sen’s government, and its international backers refused to accept any role for the Khmer Rouge.

It was to break this impasse that the Australian peace proposal, which I announced in outline in the Australian Senate on 24 November 1989, was put forward. At its core was the idea that, to side-step the power-sharing issue which had bedevilled the Paris Conference, and constrain the role of the Khmer Rouge in the transitional arrangements, the United Nations should be involved in an unprecedentedly direct and extensive way in the civil administration of Cambodia during the transitional period. At the heart of the idea of giving a central role to the UN, not just in peacekeeping or electoral monitoring, but in the actual governance of the country during the transitional period, was that this would give China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support from the Khmer Rouge, which would then wither on the vine. And it was essentially this solution – although there was a long diplomatic road ahead with many twists and turns - which unlocked the conflict and brought long-awaited and desperately needed peace to the country.

What was new was not so much the idea itself, but the degree of detail with which Australia developed the proposal, and the effort with which we pursued it. Sihanouk had as early as March 1981, and occasionally subsequently, raised the idea of some form of United Nations trusteeship. And the US Congressman Stephen Solarz had been talking for some time about direct UN involvement but had been unable to get anyone in Washington to take the idea seriously. It was a conversation with him, in the living room of the Australian permanent representative to the UN in late 1989, that sparked my imagination and led me to run with it (not, I have to say, with any enthusiasm from the senior diplomat who sat in on that discussion, who told me that it was the ‘greatest load of codswallop’ he had ever heard).

The initial response to my November 1989 statement laying out the proposal for a major UN role was nothing less than remarkable. It very quickly became clear that the idea was one whose time had come. Within a matter of weeks, most of the participants at the Paris Conference had given it varying degrees of public, as well as private, endorsement. This process was considerably assisted by an extraordinary feat of diplomatically effective endurance by Michael Costello, then the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Deputy Secretary. I had tasked him early in December 1989 to pay a quick visit to Hanoi - in between talks scheduled on other matters in Hawaii and Tokyo - to take preliminary soundings. This initial detour turned into a series of thirty major meetings with key players in thirteen countries over a period of just twenty-one days. During the course of this odyssey the Australian 'idea' became a fully-fledged Australian 'initiative' or 'plan' as we constantly refined and developed the detailed elements of the proposal and responded to suggestions or criticisms from our various interlocutors.

Representatives of the Permanent Five met in Paris in mid-January 1990 and agreed by consensus on a set of sixteen principles which would form the basis of their future discussions, and which – crucially – included strong endorsement of the concept of an enhanced United Nations role in the transitional period. By late January 1990, Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, who as Co-Chairman of the Paris Conference had been exploring the possibility of an informal regional meeting on Cambodia, felt sufficiently encouraged to convene a meeting in Jakarta on 26-28 February involving the four Cambodian parties, Vietnam and Laos and the ASEAN countries.

In recognition of the contribution we were making to the peace process (and, I think it’s fair to say, building on the very firm personal friendship we had developed over the previous two years as Foreign Ministers coming into office at the same time and wrestling with some very difficult bilateral issues) Alatas invitedAustralia to attend as a ‘resource delegation’. And therein lay the origins of what became famous as the ‘Red Book’. To prepare for the Jakarta meeting we put together a team of departmental officials working closely with my ministerial office, and sent an Australian technical mission to Cambodia, Bangkok and the Thai-Cambodia border area in the first half of February 1990 to gather further information on administrative structures and other data necessary to develop a full United Nations role in Cambodia. And just ten days after its return we were able to present to the Jakarta Meeting, a 155-page series of Working Papers – subsequently published as a red-bound booklet, Cambodia: an Australia Peace Proposal – covering in detail all the necessary elements of a comprehensive settlement and its implementation, even including a fully worked out operational budget (which at US$1.3 billion for 18 months was remarkably close to the actual cost of the two year UNTAC operation: $US 1.7 billion).

The February 1990 Jakarta Meeting came extraordinarily close to reaching agreement, but – frustratingly – broke down on the question of whether the agreed record should make specific reference to 'the prevention of recurrence of genocidal policies and practices'. But the meeting did begin a process of consensus-building which, with a number of further bumps along the way which I won’t retail here, ultimately bore fruit in the Paris Peace Conference of October 1991. Although the Permanent Five from the Jakarta meeting on played the central role (about which the US thereafter, I think a little ungraciously, never ceased to remind us!), Australia was still active on the sidelines, for example in preparing a draft negotiating text, largely because of my relationship with Alatas, who continued to play a key role as Paris Conference co-chair). And we were certainly credited by the Cambodians themselves, and most of the rest of the world, as having taken the initiative which made the final outcome possible.

Peacemaking is never over until it’s over, and to complete the story it’s necessary to describe very briefly how the Paris Agreements were actually implemented. The first UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) arrived in Cambodia in mid-March 1992, accompanied by the Secretary-General's Special Representative, Yasushi Akashi, and the Australian commander of the military component, Lieutenant General John Sanderson, whose outstandingly professional leadership was absolutely crucial to the success of the UNTAC operation.

Trouble was not long in coming. By June 1992 it became apparent that one of the central elements of the comprehensive settlement would not be fully implemented due to the refusal of the Khmer Rouge to canton and disarm their troops. Breaches of the ceasefire also occurred, though on a relatively small scale, and some attacks directed at UNTAC civilian and military personnel. A reason cited by the Khmer Rouge for their intransigence was that Hun Sen's party retained control of the state’s administrative structures: certainly it was the case that the UN Civil Administration component was deployed far too slowly, and never in fact, ironically, actually became the confident monitoring and neutrality-guaranteeing body that it had been intended to be.

The Khmer Rouge never did cooperate with UNTAC or show any willingness to participate in the UN organised elections. Despite this, and the violence which characterised the electoral campaign, the general atmosphere was judged sufficiently neutral for the elections to proceed. This they did from 23-27 May 1993, with an almost 90 per cent turnout and, to everyone's surprise and delight, almost no violent disruptions. I don't think I have ever been more moved than when I saw those first satellite pictures of men, women and children lined up at the polling stations in their scores of thousands, knowing the risk of bomb attack, but thrilled at the prospect of peace at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives.

Despite that euphoria I can’t pretend that the election ushered in a new era of democracy. The clear winner in 1993 was, surprisingly, Sihanouk's party, with Hun Sen's party coming second, but Hun Sen absolutely refused to accept this, and an uneasy power-sharing arrangement was eventually adopted. This was a foretaste of things to come, with Hun Sen ever since resisting – with violence as necessary – any serious challenge to his party’s authority, and human rights generally not faring much better.

But despite all the setbacks and deficiencies, and the fact that UN peace plan did not operate a, or as well as, it should have, it did unquestionably achieve its principal peacemaking aims. It succeeded in removing the Cambodian conflict as a source of regional tension; it enabled Vietnam to enter into much more productive relations regionally and internationally; external patrons, above all China with the Khmer Rouge, did withdraw material support for the various political groupings, sucking away the oxygen that had sustained civil war for so long; the more than 365, 000 displaced Cambodians from the Thai border were successfully repatriated; the path was cleared for Cambodia to assume its rightful place in the community of nations; and reconstruction could at last begin.

What Makes for Successful Peacemaking? There are a number of lessons I have learned from my Cambodian experience, and from being on the margins of many other peace processes during my nearly a decade at the International Crisis Group – and which by and large I think the world has now learned – as to what makes for a successful peace accord.

First, peacemaking requires, as does earlier conflict prevention effort, the commitment of serious diplomatic resources, both in quality and quantity, at whatever level is most likely to bring success – through the UN, through a regional organization, sometimes through second-track or unofficial mechanisms, and sometimes through a particular government initiative using its own diplomatic resources.

That means personnel with a combination of excellent political, negotiation, leadership and management skills combined with a superabundance of optimism, persistence and patience. I think we certainly had that with my colleagues in the Australian diplomatic service, but in the past with UN envoys and special representatives it was almost entirely a matter of chance whether any of these qualities existed – I know one envoy who found his name at the top of the list for a sensitive position for which he had no obvious background simply because his surname began with ‘A’. Things have improved greatly in the UN with the establishment of a well-resourced Mediation Support Unit, and to the extent the necessary skills have fallen away in Australia they can be taught, perhaps with the help of a similar national support unit.

One of the many necessary personal skills required to be a successful peace negotiator or mediator is a capacity for self-effacement: not letting one’s own personal or national ego get in the way of what the situation requires. I think one of the reasons we were so successful with the Red Book exercise is that we always made it clear that we were working to and through Ali Alatas as the Jakarta meeting convenor – as a “resource delegation” rather than a leading player in our own right. In diplomacy as in life you can get a lot done when you let others take the credit – and as often as not will get anyway whatever credit is due!

Second, successful peace negotiating requires creativity and stamina, and a willingness to work with all the players that matter, however ugly their past behaviour may have been. I think with the Red Book exercise we showed plenty of the former, but the success of the process we initiated also depended on us being prepared to talk face to face with the leadership of the Khmer Rouge: not an experience that I can, to this day, recall without shuddering, but a necessary one. It’s a lesson the US took a long time to learn in Iran, and still has to learn in the case of organizations like Hamas in Palestine.

Third, the terms of any accord, and in particular the method of its enforcement and implementation, must be sufficiently resilient to deal with spoilers – those who, whether they originally buy into the settlement or not, seek to undermine or overturn it. That has been a constant problem in most of the peace settlements in Africa and elsewhere that have not held, or which remain incomplete. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge were successfully stared down when they walked away from the Paris Agreement, but it was a very close run thing. At least since the Brahimi Report fifteen years ago UN peacekeeping missions have been armed with much better mandates to respond to violent spoilers, although those mandates have not always been accompanied by the resources and operational effectiveness their execution has required.

Fourth, we know that any peace accord must deal with all the fundamentals of the dispute: all the issues which will have to be resolved if normality is to return. That said, peacemaking is less often an event than a process, and signing the agreement will rarely be the end of it.

Fifth, any successful peace accord must get the balance right between peace and justice. The South African truth and reconciliation commission model, with its amnesties for the perpetrators of even the most serious crimes if they were both frank and repentant, remains very widely admired (even if the practice there by no means consistently followed the principle). But in other cases sustainable peace will not be possible without significant retributive justice: i.e. the visible trial and punishment of those most guilty. And in other cases again people just want to move on, with no backward looking process at all. What is clear is that the people of every country, whether it’s Cambodia or Rwanda or anywhere else, have to resolve what works for them.

Sixth – and this follows particularly from the last point – a peace accord to be successful must have the necessary degree of international support: with all the guarantees and commitment of resources that are necessary to make it stick.

Can Australia Play a Bigger Peacemaking Role in Future? My short answer here is that we can and should. If one wants to be an effective diplomatic peacemaker what matters is credibility, capacity and motivation. Although the extent of our motivation has waxed and waned over the years with changes of political leadership, and although we have at various times put our credentials with various international constituencies at risk – usually when we have let our enthusiasm for our alliance relationship with the US overwhelm our better judgement – the truth is that Australia has ample stocks of both capacity and credibility on which to draw.

We are by most measures the 12th largest economy in the world; by any measure we are the 6th largest by landmass and with the 3rd largest maritime zone; we are one of the most multicultural countries in the globe; we have a strong commitment to our Indigenous people, as the whole world applauded with our apology to the stolen generation; we bring to the table a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australian peacekeepers, and Australians working in international organizations, both official and non-governmental, have won almost universally outstanding reputations; we have had a strong and longstanding commitment to a rule-based global and regional order; and we have had a long – if not totally unbroken  – record of demonstrated national commitment to the UN system in all its security, social and economic justice and human rights dimensions.

Of course there are some constraints on our overall capability, but none of a kind that inherently limit our ability to play a bigger role in peacemaking. We are not and never will be a great or major power, with the kind of economic, military and political might that enables some states to impose their will upon others, or at least think they can. We might sometimes appear that way to our smaller South Pacific neighbours, but we have long been acutely aware that trying to impose authority – without being asked, as sometimes we have been in crisis situations – is usually counterproductive. As a general rule being, or being seen to be, a great or major power is more a hindrance than a help to effective diplomatic peacemaking.

What Australia should aspire to be, and is generally recognised as being, is a quintessential middle power, not in the business of imposing ourselves and our preferences on anybody, but recognizing that there are multiple international policy tasks which do need to be accomplished if the world around us to is to be safer, saner, more just and more prosperous; understanding that those tasks can only be accomplished by acting cooperatively and constructively with others; and having sufficient capacity and credibility to be able to effectively so act.

The only real impediment to Australia playing a more consistently active role in the task of peacemaking is lack of motivation, or political will. We don’t inherently carry so much baggage, historically or in terms of our alliance relationships, that we will be seen by many as an unacceptable interlocutor: there could hardly have been a more highly-charged ideological environment than Cambodia, yet Australia was accepted on all sides there as an honest broker, and we can be again. And we don’t lack skilled personnel, or the capacity to train them at relatively minimal cost. The only real issue is how we answer the question of why we should bother to take on the often frustrating and thankless task of conflict mediation, particularly when the conflict in question is outside our own immediate region, or does not impact in any immediate way on our own obvious national security or economic interests.

The answer I always give to this question – which can arise in a number of other contexts as well, like whether we should contribute soldiers to prevent Daesh atrocities in Iraq, or peacekeepers to maintain order in Central Africa, or health workers to counter pandemics in West Africa – is that it is not only the morally right thing to do, but very much in our hard-headed national interest, for Australia to be and be seen to be a good international citizen.

The argument is that by being seriously committed to cooperative international problem solving, national interest is advanced in two ways. First, through simple reciprocity: my help for you today in solving your national or regional problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my problem – be it unauthorised people movements or whatever – tomorrow. And secondly, through reputational benefit: the perception of being a country willing to take principled stands for other than immediately self-interested reasons does no harm at all to one’s own commercial and wider political agendas. One of the attractions of the concept is that it bridges the traditional gap between realism and idealism, by making it clear that pursuing values and interests are not necessarily completely different ways of going about things: rather, the pursuit of values can also be the pursuit of interests.

The bottom line is that a country with Australia’s record and reputation, as an energetic, creative middle power which has played a world-leading role in international diplomacy, on both peace and security and other issues in the past, ought to be setting our sights higher, acting more generously and engaging more actively, on those many international problem areas which may seem at first sight to involve what Hedley Bull memorably described as “purposes beyond ourselves”. And getting more actively involved in diplomatic peacemaking is one obvious place to start.