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Peacekeeping Lessons Learned: Australia in Cambodia

Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University and Minister for Foreign Affairs 1988-96,  to DFAT Seminar, Canberra, 22 August 2013

Australia played three major roles in the Cambodian peace process, and the peacekeeping operation which followed it.  The first, in late 1989, was to make, and sell to all the relevant actors, the breakthrough conceptualisation which made the resolution of a long running conflict possible. The second, in early 1990, was to produce the basic design and feasibility study for the peacekeeping operation, until then the biggest, and most far-reaching in scope, UN peacekeeping operation ever mounted. The third, in 1992-93, and essentially in recognition of the prominent role we had played in the first two, was to assume the military leadership of the peacekeeping operation itself, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which in my judgement – and that of many others – was crucial in holding the whole operation together. 

I have written and spoken a lot elsewhere about the peace process culminating in the 1991 Paris Accords, and will say only enough here to set the context for the peacekeeping operation which followed it.  The background, in the late 1980s,  was 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 Khmer Rouge 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 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, but none succeeded. The key that eventually unlocked the door was an idea put to me by 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.

The core of the idea, as we spelled it out and then set about selling it to all the relevant players,  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 have 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. And the core thought behind this was that it would give China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support from the Khmer Rouge, which would then – eventually if not immediately – wither on the vine. And it was essentially this solution – although there was a long diplomatic road ahead with many twists and turns, and the P5 rather than Australia was at the core of all the negotiations after early 1990 (and never let us forget it!) – which unravelled the conflict and brought long-awaited and desperately needed peace to the country.

After a flurry of diplomatic activity following my initial Senate statement in November 1989, involving in particular an extraordinary feat of diplomatically effective endurance by DFAT Dep Sec Michael Costello – involving thirty major meetings with key players in thirteen countries over a period of just twenty-one days –  the Australian 'idea' had  become a fully-fledged Australian 'initiative' or 'plan', and had won a sufficient measure of acceptance for Ali Alatas  in late January 1990 to convene a meeting to try to achieve a new consensus in Jakarta the following month,  involving the four Cambodian parties, Vietnam and Laos and the ASEAN countries.

This is where our second role cut in.  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 a two year period in 1992-93, was $US 1.7 billion – remarkably close to our original guesstimate: although a number of details of the plan had by then changed.

Let me jump over all the gruelling diplomatic process – with a lot of highs and lows along the way – which followed between early 1990 until the signing of the Paris Accords in October 1991 and the establishment of UNTAC shortly thereafter. I think the lobbying effort of which I remain proudest during this period was that which resulted in the appointment of General John Sanderson as military commander of UNTAC, when it was finally approved by the Security Council in February 1992. Within a month he was on the ground, alongside Secretary-General's Special Representative, Yasushi Akashi, the civilian head, and the first operational units, and the leadership role he played  in holding the organization’s nerve during some very stressful periods when a number around him were losing theirs was really decisive. 

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, UNTAC was a breathtakingly large commitment from the international community in terms of anything that had gone before.  At no stage was the operation really plain sailing, and trouble was not long in coming. Within three months, 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.
More troubling were attacks directed at UNTAC civilian and military personnel. A reason cited by the Khmer Rouge for their intransigence was that Hun Sen's SOC retained control of their administrative structures: 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. The Khmer Rouge never did cooperate with UNTAC or show any willingness to participate in the UN organised elections.

Despite all this, and the violence which characterised the electoral campaign (not instigated only by the Khmer Rouge), 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 for one have never 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.

The results brought a further surprise, the clear winner being Sihanouk's FUNCINPEC, with Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) coming second. Hun Sen – in a foretaste of what was to come – absolutely refused to accept this, and an uneasy power-sharing arrangement was eventually adopted, with Sihanouk's son,  Ranariddh as 'First Prime Minister', and Hun Sen as 'Second Prime Minister’.

Despite the limitations of what was achieved in terms of introducing a genuinely democratic political system (which is only now in 2013, twenty years later, in 2013, showing any signs of maturity at all) and any kind of really serious human-rights respecting culture, the  whole UN-supervised settlement did achieve its principal aims. The external patrons, not least 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 and bringing it eventually to a close. The settlement 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; 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.

And from an Australian perspective, 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 the AFP’s Bill Kirk played a leading role; the communications and media operation; the human rights operation within the  limits of its mandate and resources; 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.

Of course we and the world learned many lessons from the UNTAC operation. Although a great deal has been written on this subject, I think the best single account, and not just from an Australian perspective, is to be found in the final chapter of the book Cambodia From Red to Blue: Australia’s Initiative for Peace (Allen & Unwin, 1997) written by the Australian diplomat Ken Berry, who was on my ministerial staff at the time. He describes, along with a lot of other detailed analysis and prescription derived from what went right and wrong in UNTAC, the five main conditions which need to be satisfied if a peacekeeping operation is to be effective:

  • a conceptually sound and appropriately detailed peace plan (which was generally in place, not least as a result of Australia’s early efforts, but which did have some serious gaps: in particular vagueness on the role and operation of the Supreme National Council – set up including all four local parties to “embody Cambodian sovereignty” – on what should happen in the event of non-compliance by one or more of the parties);
  • clear and achievable goals (which were best defined and implemented for the holding of free and fair elections, but very weakly articulated for the crucial civil administration role, with less than 200 UN civilians means to oversee the operations of the country’s central ministries; the law and justice function was also, in retrospect, very underdone);
  • early deployment of adequate resources as soon as possible after the parties to the conflict have reached agreement (not well done in Cambodia, where it took five months after the Paris Agreement for the first UNTAC elements to arrive, and other five to six months for it to become fully operational, particularly on the civilian side);
  • support by the parties to the conflict  (not achieved in the case of the Khmer Rouge, although that could have been anticipated given that it was pressured into the whole process by China and stood to lose the most of any of the parties from its success; in the absence of a peace enforcement mandate and resources, the UNTAC military component did a remarkable job in holding its nerve, and maintaining the confidence of the population in the viability of the process, during the election period); and
  • appropriate continuing external support for the operation  (this was here  maintained, and institutionalised through regular meetings of the ‘expanded P5’ or ‘Core Group’, which included the external backers of all the various factions, and helped ensure that they were continuously pressured and persuaded not to return to violence – and inhibited from doing so by their backers withholding, and convincing others to withhold) arms supplies and other material support.

Australia derived quite a lot of geopolitical benefit from the Cambodian enterprise. It showed that we were capable and effective exponents of the art of middle power diplomacy, able to build international coalitions by persuasion rather than any exercise of economic or military muscle; it demonstrated that a regional initiative could successfully show the way to the United Nations, rather than the other way round;  and  by  being so demonstrably  productive it gave an important kick-start to the regional architecture, in APEC and the Asean Regional Forum, that we were contributing to building around the same time.

I think it’s worth saying,  finally, that the Cambodian peacekeeping exercise was a tremendous demonstration, as others both before and after it have been, of the particular qualities which Australians – whether in the military, or in NGO or other civilian roles –  bring to these operations.  What seems to characterise Australians in the field is an admirable willingness and capacity to just get the job done – and to do it irreverently, cheerfully, unshirkingly, and in a way that is intolerant of bullshit in any form and totally instinctively egalitarian (neither sucking up or kicking down).  That has tended to make Australian peacekeepers the toast of just about every local community in which they have ever served, and has won us the plaudits of professionals around the world. May that tradition long continue.