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Introducing: Wietse Stam

Wietse Stam is a PhD candidate at the Leiden University Institute for History. His PhD thesis is about UNTAC; a United Nations peacekeeping operation in Cambodia during the early 1990s.

My appointment at the Institute for History does not bring me in unexplored territory. I studied History and French at Leiden University. Although I very much enjoyed my study time in Leiden, I spent two years of my curriculum in France. During my BA History I did an exchange with the University of Strasbourg where I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis. This experience made me even more passionate about historical research and I consequently decided to apply for Leiden University’s Research Master’s degree. During this programme I had the opportunity to spend one and a half years in Paris where I studied at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and did an internship at the embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. After this enriching experience, I am happy to be back again in Leiden for this new challenge. I dug into UNTAC for the first time during my MA programme, when I wrote a research paper about this operation in the context of Professor Ben Schoenmaker’s seminar on UN peacekeeping in the 1990s. When I was given the opportunity to present this paper in Oxford, my curiosity was aroused again for this exiting topic which combines my interests in political, military, and diplomatic history.

In an era of post-Cold War optimism, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) opened a new chapter in the history of UN peacekeeping. UNTAC was, at the time, the largest, most ambitious, and most expensive operation in the experience of the United Nations. However, the operation has remained relatively unknown because it was overshadowed by the traumatic experiences of the UN in Rwanda, Somalia and Srebrenica. Compared to these derailed operations, UNTAC is often regarded as a success, despite the fact that it has not been able to fulfil most of its mandate. It was an operation in which peacekeepers, politicians and diplomats were confronted with new challenges, such as the question whether to use coercive action to force recalcitrant parties to respect the peace agreement. How much risk were contributing countries willing to take for the success of the mission? What were the reasons behind the choices that were made? Another complicating factor for the efficiency of a peacekeeping operations is its characteristic of an hoc coalition of national armies, all with their own command structures and national political agendas. My research focusses on how these complexities were experienced at the various levels of organization; from the UN headquarters in New York to the peacekeepers on the ground. Since a peacekeeping operation is an international enterprise par excellence, my research analyses the operation from the Dutch, French and Australian perspective.

Peacekeeping operations, especially in the 1990s, constitute a relatively new field of study for historians. Political scientists have been more interested in studying them, very often with the intention to develop models that determine the preconditions for the success of peacekeeping. Now that new archival material has become accessible, a new field for historical research has opened. One of the interesting elements of such a contemporary topic is that interviews with veterans and former policy makers who were involved in the operation constitute rich source material to work with. A historical investigation about UNTAC will enable us to reconstruct this operation in more detail, determine its place in the history of peacekeeping, and demonstrate how this specific operation in Cambodia was experienced at the time. In this way, my research aims to make a contribution, in the form of a historical case study, to the debate about the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping operations.

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