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Celebrating Australia's Peacekeepers in Cambodia

Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University and former Foreign Minister of Australia, Twenty Year Commemorative Dinner for Australian Peacekeepers in Cambodia, Royal Military College, Duntroon, 25 May 2013

I don't think I have ever been more moved than I was  during that morning in May 1993, twenty years ago this week, when I saw the first television satellite pictures of Cambodian men, women and children, not just the adult voters, but whole families lined up at the polling stations in their scores of thousands, dressed in their best clothes, pure joy on their faces –  knowing that there was a very real risk of Khmer Rouge bomb attacks, but thrilled at the prospect of peace at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives.

This is a country which had been ground down, as almost no country had ever been on this scale before, over the previous two decades – ravaged successively by massive US bombing and what followed from it, 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.

That we succeeded – that you succeeded – in making that election day the success that it was, remains a huge tribute to all those responsible. When the laurels are handed out, though we might have to wait until judgment day for that, we know that the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, and the Australians who led it and the Australians who served in it, and alongside it, will feature very large in the list of the deserving.

As a prelude to the main event this evening, the address by John Sanderson, who more than anyone else – with an awful lot of daylight between him and second place – made that mission successful, I was asked to talk a little about the background to it: the negotiations which led to its UNTAC’s creation – the other contribution that Australia made to bringing about peace in Cambodia.

The conflict that we rather adventurously set out to resolve was extraordinarily complex and intractable, played out at three distinct levels. The first level was that of the warring internal factions – four groups each immensely distrustful of all the others: with Hun Sen's Government waged against a fragile coalition of the two non-communist groups – Sihanoukists and KPNLF (Son Sann) – and the communist Khmer Rouge. The second level was regional, with Vietnam supporting Hun Sen and ASEAN supporting his opponents.  And the third level involved the great power patrons  – with China supporting the Khmer Rouge and Prince Sihanouk (as he then was); the Soviet Union supporting Hun Sen; and the United States supporting the two non-communist resistance groups. Things don’t get much more complicated than this.

In the late 1980s a number of efforts were made, with Indonesia in particular under FM Alatas playing an important role, to find a solution to the Cambodian problem. All of them focused on trying to achieve some power-sharing arrangement which would satisfy the internal factions and their various backers - there were the Jakarta Informal Meetings (‘JIM’s) in July 1988 and February 1989, and then the big jointly French and Indonesia sponsored Paris Conference on Cambodia  in July-August 1989 – but none of them could reach agreement. The key issue was that Hun Sen – and his backers Vietnam and the Soviet Union – simply wouldn’t concede a place at the table for the KR, and the opposition factions, with China backing the KR, wouldn’t sit down without them.

Shortly after the Paris Conference I had a chance meeting in New York with an old friend, US Congressman Stephen Solarz, who told me had an idea as to how to move forward on the Cambodia issue which he had been canvassing around Washington, but which he had not been able to get any support for at all, not least because at its heart was a central role for the UN, never a popular idea in that town.

I have to say the idea which Solarz sketched out for me – which at that stage was not much more than a thought bubble, though it proved to be the key that unlocked the door – had no more immediate appeal for a senior Australian diplomat, who shall remain nameless, who sat in on our meeting in New York, and whose advice if I had relied on it, would have continued to leave it stillborn: “I have to say, Minister, that it is the greatest load of poppycock I have ever heard”. But I decided to ignore the gentleman in question (not a practice I commonly followed with my diplomats, whatever you may have heard to the contrary),  and do some detailed testing of the water – and the rest is history.

The core of the idea, as I initially developed and spelled it out in the Senate in November 1989, was that, in order 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 directly involved in the civil administration of Cambodia during the transitional period. There should be, we said, a UN military presence to monitor the cease-fire and cessation of external military assistance; a UN role in organising and conducting elections; and UN involvement in the transitional administrative arrangements to ensure a neutral political environment conducive to fair and free general elections.

At the heart of the idea of giving an unprecedentedly central role to the United Nations, 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 unravelled the conflict and brought long-awaited and desperately needed peace to the country.

The idea of major United Nations involvement in a transitional administration was not in itself completely new.  Sihanouk had for example as early as March 1981, and occasionally subsequently, raised the idea of some form of United Nations trusteeship, and Solarz told me that his own idea was based on this.   What was new was the degree of detail with which Australia developed the proposal, and the effort with which we pursued it, a process of which I’ll give you just a taste.

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, spelled out in the way I have just done, 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. None of this would have happened without 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, as we exchanged cable messages and calls every evening ­– constantly refining and developing  the detailed elements of the proposal in response to suggestions or criticisms from our various interlocutors –the Australian 'idea' became a fully-fledged Australian 'initiative' or 'plan'.  

By late January 1990, Ali Alatas felt sufficiently encouraged by all this to convene a meeting in Jakarta the following month involving the four Cambodian parties, Vietnam and Laos and the ASEAN countries. In recognition of the contribution we were making to the peace process, Australia was invited to attend as a resource delegation. And this was what led us  – within less than a month – to mount a technical mission to Cambodia and the Thai border, and produce on the basis of its findings, the 155-page series of Working Papers covering in  detail all the necessary elements of a comprehensive settlement:  what became known, from the colour of its binding, as the ‘Red Book’: not out of any deference to Mao but because that was the only glossy cardboard the Department’s  printer had in stock.

The Red Book outlined in detail the roles proposed for the United Nations in civil administration; in organising and conducting elections; and in maintaining a secure environment in which Cambodians might exercise their electoral choice free from fear, intimidation and violence. The Papers also explored a range of costings. Conventional wisdom had it that such an exercise would be beyond the resources of the United Nations, but our indicative calculations showed that such a proposal – which we estimated would cost US$1.3 billion for 18 months – was both practicable and affordable. What is interesting to note that the actual cost of the UNTAC operation when eventually put into place, for the two year period from November 1991 to November 1993, was $US 1.7 billion – remarkably close to our original guesstimate: although a number of details of the plan had by then changed.

I won’t bore you with any more detail about how the negotiation process went on from there – with all its bumps and grinds, and highs and lows, and moments of hope and moments of despair – until it all came together with the signing of the Paris Accords in October 1991.

In any event I can’t pretend that Australia played a central role in the day to day negotiations through most of 1990-91.   Having pointed the way to a solution, and done all the initial grunt work in demonstrating  to our great and powerful friend across the water, and others in the Security Council, that it was politically, practically and financially feasible, we were essentially told to leave it to the big boys to negotiate the final plan, although I did stay reasonably close to the action because of my continuing close personal and professional relationship with  the  Paris co-chair, Ali Alatas, and there was plenty of gracious acknowledgment of  Australia’s catalytic role at the signing ceremony and subsequently.   

I think the lobbying effort of which I remain proudest during this period was that which resulted in the appointment  of John Sanderson as military commander of UNTAC, when it was finally approved by the Security Council in February 1992 – with its 15 900 military personnel, 3600 civilian police and 1020 administrative personnel, with 34 nations contributing to the military operation and 45 to the peace keeping exercise overall – a breathtakingly large commitment from the international community in terms of anything that had gone before.

In terms of the operation itself, it was by no means all plain sailing – as you will all no doubt remember, and as John will no doubt remind you. The Khmer Rouge refused to canton and disarm its troops. There were attacks directed at UNTAC civilian and military personnel. The KR tried to justify their position by saying that Hun Sen's SOC, retained control of the country’s administrative structures, and certainly it was the case that the UN Civil Administration component was deployed far too slowly, and never in fact became the confident monitoring and neutrality-guaranteeing body that it had been intended to be.

But of course for everything that went wrong with the mission, and in its aftermath, there was a huge amount that went wonderfully right: certainly including the whole military operation under John Sanderson’s inspired leadership; the civil policing operation in which Bill Kirk played a leading role; the communications and media operation; the human rights operation within the limits of its mandate; and in the election organisation and monitoring operation. Australian diplomats played a great and constructive role alongside UNTAC, as did Australian NGOs and NGO personnel on the ground.

And the whole UN-supervised settlement did achieve its principal 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, not least China with the Khmer Rouge, withdrew 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.

I’m proud of the opportunity that I had personally to play a part in bringing this about. There are lots of things I’d like to forget about my political career, but the Cambodian peace process is not one of them!

But above all I’m proud of you, my fellow Australians, gathered here this evening and representing a big cross section of those who served in this mission, for the wonderful role you played in making the really hard stuff happen.  And for doing it in a way – irreverently, cheerfully, competently, unshirkingly, intolerant of bullshit in any form and totally instinctively egalitarian (neither sucking up or kicking down) – that has made Australian peacekeepers the toast of every local community in which they have ever served, has won the plaudits of professionals around the world, and has made me very proud to be an Australian.