home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Peacemaking and Peacebuilding: Lessons from Cambodia

Presentation to AIIA/Asialink Conference on Cambodia and the Evolution of Peacebuilding: The Role of the Paris Peace Accords, 29 October 2021

It is hard to overemphasise the importance of the 1991 Paris Accords, which did bring lasting peace to Cambodia after more than twenty years of being ravaged successively by massive US bombing during the Vietnam war, civil war, genocidal terror, invasion by the Vietnamese, and then by civil war again. All of which– above all the horrific Khmer Rouge genocide of the mid 1970s – caused the deaths of some two million Cambodians and destroyed the life opportunities of many millions more.

Australia can remain proud of the role we played in achieving that peace. We initiated the diplomatic strategy that, after many failed previous attempts, finally worked: essentially by identifying an unprecedentedly hands-on role for the United Nations in the governance of the country during the transition, which gave China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support for the Khmer Rouge. We engaged in some relentlessly intense diplomacy with all the relevant players – internally, regionally and globally – to sell that strategy. And the detailed 155-page blueprint we prepared for the crucial Jakarta Informal Meeting of February 1990 – the ‘Red Book’ – was the foundation on which all the subsequent negotiations built, and around which the Paris Peace Agreements were designed.

I cannot over-emphasise the skill, professionalism and commitment of the Foreign Affairs departmental team – led by Deputy Secretary Michael Costello, a master-class diplomatic performance – in making all this happen. Nor can I over-emphasise how critical throughout was the role of Indonesia and its then Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, as co-chair of the Paris Process: not only in recognising the breakthrough potential of the Australian proposal, and working closely with us in developing it, but in driving the whole subsequent negotiating process, in which the Security Council P5 liked to see themselves as the key players, with extraordinary ability and tenacity.

What should also be a matter of great Australian pride was General John Sanderson’s leadership of the UNTAC military mission during the critical, and very stressful, 1991-93 transition period. His skill, judgement, and strength of character, not least his capacity to stiffen the backs of his civilian counterparts – when they did eventually arrive on the ground – was crucial to that mission’s success.

But, as I said when representing Australia at the Paris signing ceremony in 1991, ‘Peace and Freedom are not prizes, which, once gained, can never be lost. They must be won again each day. Their foundations must be sunk deep into the bedrock of political stability, economic prosperity and above all, the observance of human rights.’ Sadly, the truth of that observation has been borne out repeatedly over the last three decades. The international community brought peace to Cambodia, and with it some overdue national economic development. But as to democracy and human rights – the other two core elements of the Paris Agreements, and on which the Paris blueprint was equally clear and detailed – we have to acknowledge that the record has been one of almost complete failure.

A foretaste of things to come came with Hun Sen’s refusal to accept his defeat at the UN supervised election in 1993, insisting on a power-sharing arrangement which the international community did not resist, as in retrospect we certainly should have – although it has to be acknowledged that the limp acquiescence of the royalist victors in their own emasculation did not help matters. Since then, there has been systematic suppression of any movement towards a mature democracy, with repression of free speech and assembly, the arrest of many human rights activists who have tried to speak out for fundamental freedoms, the banning of the major opposition party and the persecution of its leaders, and periodic resort to outright murderous violence when the leadership has felt itself seriously threatened. And corruption is endemic, with the World Bank ranking its control in the globe’s lowest 10 per cent, which has not helped to redress high levels of poverty and serious continuing inequality.

So what lessons can we learn from both the successes and failures of our Cambodian enterprise? For present purposes I will focus just on Cambodia-type cases, those involving conflict within rather than between states. And in doing so I will draw not just on my Cambodian experience but many subsequent years of engagement with these issues at the International Crisis Group and elsewhere.

Serious internal conflict situations do continue to recur in our region and beyond -- with Myanmar the starkest current regional example. And they cry out not only for effective peacemaking diplomacy, but strong subsequent institutional peacebuilding to consolidate the gains made, prevent the recurrence of deadly conflict, and ensure that hard-won freedoms are genuinely enjoyed.

Peacemaking. The first lesson I would emphasise is that successful peacemaking requires the commitment of serious diplomatic resources, both in quality and quantity, at whatever level is most likely to bring success – through the United Nations, through a regional organisation, through particular governments, or sometimes through second-track or unofficial mechanisms. In every case, the need is for personnel with a combination of excellent political, negotiation, leadership and management skills combined with a superabundance of optimism, creativity, persistence, patience and stamina.

In Australia, all those qualities were there in abundance with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade team during the Cambodian peace process, but I am not so sure we have the same capacity now. While I know there are many hugely capable officers still within the system at all levels, their morale and confidence have for too many years taken a battering from poor resourcing, over reliance by political leaders on advice from the defence and intelligence establishment, and lack of respect for independent diplomatic judgment. Unless and until these trends are quickly reversed, I am not as confident as I once was that we could again play a major peace-brokering role.

There was also abundant skill and creativity evident in Ali Alatas and his Indonesian team, and in several of the other key South East Asian players, not least Vietnam’s Nguyen Co Thach and Hun Sen himself in Cambodia (my ‘brother’ as he used to call me in those days), who were shrewd and constructive when it mattered most. In future regional peace diplomacy, Indonesia is always going to be the indispensable ASEAN player, with some other individual states playing potentially important supporting roles, but whether ASEAN itself as a collective entity, and as now constituted, can play that role is another question.

ASEAN remains hugely important for its role in maintaining interstate peace among its historically very quarrelsome members, which would alone justify its existence, and as an organisation for economic and technical cooperation. But it has shown itself to be completely incapable of maintaining any kind of discipline over its members when it comes to internal conflict, democracy and human rights issues, Myanmar is just the most recent example. Maybe the recent decision to refuse summit attendance to the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing is signalling some new steeliness, but on all past evidence – notwithstanding the great efforts of those like Marty Natalegawa to change the organization’s culture – we should not be holding our breath.

Second, successful peace negotiating requires a willingness to work with all the players that matter, however ugly their behaviour may have been. The success of the Cambodian peace process which Australia initiated depended partly 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. As my relentlessly realist US Secretary of State colleague Jim Baker used to say ‘You negotiate peace with your enemies, not your friends’. But it’s a lesson the United States itself took a long time to learn in Iran (and then promptly unlearned again under Trump), and still has to learn in the case of organisations 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 UN Brahimi Report in 2000, blue-helmet 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, any peace accord must deal in one way or another with all the fundamentals of the dispute: all the issues which will have to be resolved if normality is to return. I don’t think the Paris Peace Agreements, unlike many others, were at fault in this respect. They made quite comprehensive provision for free and fair elections and human rights protections, which were to a large if not complete extent subsequently embodied in the country’s constitution. The fault was not in the design but the execution: the problem here lay with the rapid erosion of any internal commitment to support those principles and the lack of any international will to try to enforce them.

Fifth, any successful peace accord must get the balance right between peace and justice. A soft truth and reconciliation process, as in South Africa, may be enough in some cases; in others sustainable peace will not be possible without significant retributive justice – the visible trial and punishment of those most guilty; 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 is Cambodia or Rwanda or anywhere else, have to resolve what works for them. Hun Sen’s foot-dragging in bringing to justice even just the worst of the Khmer Rouge genocidaires, in the hybrid UN-Cambodian tribunal that was eventually established, has been widely criticised, But the public proceedings which did eventually take place were ultimately reasonably effective in getting the basic story told, the indefensible horror of it broadly understood, and community sentiment basically satisfied.

The last requirement in my peacemaking list is that 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. That support seemed to be there with the Paris Peace Agreements with their nineteen signatories, including all the major global and regional players, who committed themselves to ‘taking appropriate steps to ensure respect’ for the Accord’s provisions in the event of their violation. But everyone seemed to regard the job as having been done, if not with the signing of the Agreements then certainly with the peaceful conduct of the UN-administered 1993 election. It wasn’t.

Despite the recurring attempts of activists to have the Paris Conference reconvened, there is no evident will on the part of the French and Indonesian co-chairs, or any other participants, with all their other preoccupations, to take that initiative. Nor is there much that could be done if the Conference were to reconvene, other than to refer issues back to the UN Security Council or Human Rights Council, which have shown themselves to be uninterested, impotent or both.

If effective pressure is going to be put on the Hun Sen regime to mend its authoritarian ways, it is going to have to happen primarily from within – from those brave legions of Cambodians who remain profoundly unhappy with the repression and misgovernance of the ruling regime – but with strong support from individual countries who are committed to decency (what I like to call good international citizenship) and have some capacity to apply effective pressure. Targeted individual sanctions against key regime members and their families – basically asset freezes and other financial restrictions, and visa bans – seem to be the most useful forms of such pressure.

After dragging its feet for years, the Australian Government at last announced in August 2021 its intention to enact a ‘Magnitsky Act’ to make easier the application of such sanctions in human rights cases – following US, UK and Canada legislation, so named to honour the Russian dissident tortured and killed after exposing government corruption. It may be a triumph of hope over experience to believe that this will be passed any time soon, or be strong enough or applied with any vigour when it is. But when it is operational, the Hun Sen government should be one of its first targets. Along with other major violators of universal human rights principles – and of negotiated peace agreements.

Post-conflict peacebuilding. Peacemaking is rarely over when it is over. If it is to be genuinely successful and sustainable, we have learned from decades of hard experience that it has to be accompanied by effective post-conflict peacebuilding – the building of institutional capability. and a culture of commitment to go with it, which will ensure that peace is sustainable, will build in protections against a recurrence of violence, and guarantee a decent and dignified life for all those who have been denied it. The end of the Khmer Rouge genocide and the final destruction of its warfighting capability did bring an end to the misery of Cambodia’s protracted conflicts, but peace was never the whole story, and its achievement was not the end of the story.

There has been generated since the Cambodian experience thirty years ago a huge body of literature on peacebuilding, and the management of transitions from war to peace, generating prescriptions – above all the absolute necessity to understand the culture of the societies within which one is operating – which it is impossible for me to here summarise in a way which would do justice to them. Let me just focus on two of the most important lessons Cambodia taught me, and which remain universally relevant today.

The first is that multiple objectives have to be pursued simultaneously. Physical security may always be the first priority, but it cannot be the only one, and rule of law and justice issues, and economic governance and anti-corruption measures, deserve much higher priority than they have usually been given. Cambodia is as clear a case as one can find – although well matched by Afghanistan later on – of manifestly insufficient attention being paid, during the UNTAC transitional administration period, to the creation of an effective civil and criminal justice system (including an independent judiciary and well-managed police force) that would have a chance of curbing the corruption and human rights violations that later became endemic.

The second big lesson, applicable in every peacebuilding context I can think of, is that it is necessary to commit the necessary resources, and sustain that commitment for as long as it takes. All intrusive peace operations need an exit strategy, if not an exit timetable, and one that is not just devoted to holding elections as soon as possible, as important as it obviously is to vest real authority and responsibility in the people of the country being rebuilt. Every situation has its own dynamic. But some of the worst peacebuilding mistakes of the past have had more to do with leaving too soon, or doing too little, than staying too long or doing too much.

It was probably not realistic in Cambodia to imagine the full UNTAC administration being sustained much longer, given its scale and cost, and the internal parties’ pressure for it to leave, but the creation of effective and accountable governance mechanisms was in most areas a long way from complete, and to run for the door allowing Hun Sen to subvert the credibility of the first election, in the way the international players did. was in retrospect, as I have already said, a serious mistake.

Not giving up on R2P. If I can be allowed one remaining message from my Cambodian experience, it is how crucially necessary it now is that the world not give up on ‘R2P’, the principle that states have a responsibility to protect populations at risk of mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing, other crimes against humanity and major war crimes – with state sovereignty conferring no immunity against effective international action. This principle was unanimously endorsed by the world’s heads of state and government at the 2005 UN World Summit, finally recognizing how indefensible their failure to act had been not only in the 1990s horror cases of Rwanda and Srebrenica, but above all in response to the Khmer Rouge genocide. Although R2P had not been thought of, let alone universally embraced, at the time of the Paris Peace Agreements, a certain collective sense of shame, that the international community had allowed Cambodia’s own Holocaust to happen, was undoubtedly part of the sub-text of the whole process.

R2P is currently struggling to maintain traction in the cases that matter most. As a general normative principle – that mass atrocity crimes perpetrated behind sovereign state borders are not just that state’s but the world’s business – its acceptance, as evidenced by annual General Assembly debates and scores of Security Council resolutions, remains almost complete. But in in our own region, in particular, there remains a lingering tradition of deference at all costs to state sovereignty, and an attachment to realpolitik that would do Henry Kissinger proud (remembering his reported comment to then Thai Foreign Minister Chatichai in November 1975, six months after the Khmer Rouge had taken Phnom Penh: ‘Tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs but we won’t let that stand in our way.’).

As an effective preventive force, and as a catalyst for institutional change, R2P has had many identifiable successes. But as an effective reactive mechanism, when prevention has failed, the record – since the Libyan case ran off the rails in 2011 – has been manifestly poor, above all in Syria, but with Sri Lanka and Myanmar being clear recent examples closer to home. In the present international environment – with China and Russia now behaving as they are – it will be a long and difficult process to recreate any kind of Security Council consensus as to how to react to the hardest of cases.

Learning the biggest lesson of all from the Cambodian genocide – the need to make R2P genuinely effective – means above all mobilizing the political will to make something actually happen when it must. For that to occur many arguments need to be effectively made to many different constituencies. But the most compelling argument – the one that spurred world leaders to accept the R2P norm in principle in 2005, and which will continue to be crucial in ensuring its practical implementation – remains the moral one, based simply on our common humanity: our duty to rise above the legacy of all those terrible failures in the past, to ensure that never again do any of us stand by, or pass by, in the face of mass atrocity crimes, and do everything in our power to redress their consequences.