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How a UN mission in Cambodia became a 'success' by taking sides

The peacekeeping operation in Cambodia (1991-1993) by the United Nations is generally regarded as an important and rare peacekeeping success. Research by PhD candidate Wietse Stam shows that the operation violated the core peacekeeping principle of neutrality in order to achieve success.

‘The UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia was prompted by the  peace treaty signed in Paris in October 1991, which brought the conflict in Cambodia officially to an end,’ Stam explains. ‘The UN, as a neutral party, was charged with implementing the terms of the peace treaty. The two key tasks of the UN were to  disarm the warring Cambodian parties and organise free and fair elections. It was an ambitious mission, which quickly proved difficult to put into practice. One of the Cambodian parties involved in the conflict, the infamous Khmer Rouge, almost from the outset failed to observe the Peace Treaty and rejected the peacekeeping operation.’ 

In total, the Peace Treaty was signed by four warring Cambodian factions. These were the Khmer Rouge, a Communist movement that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 with a genocidal reign of terror, the pro-Vietnamese regime in Phnom Penh that was installed by Vietnam after the Vietnamese army had defeated the Khmer Rouge in 1979, and the anti-Communist FUNCINPEC and KPNLF groups that conducted a guerrilla war in the eighties against the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian regime.

A paradox

In spite of the active opposition of the Khmer Rouge, the UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia was hailed as a success: in 1993 free elections were held that had a 90 per cent turnout. Stam: ‘It’s that paradox that I examined in my research. How could this operation be successful if one party so blatantly turned its back on the UN mission? The generally accepted explanation is that this is primarily because the UN held strictly to the traditional peacekeeping principles of neutrality, consultation with the parties involved and minimum use of force. But my research shows that the UN mission resolved to violate the principle of neutrality in order ultimately to be able to achieve the objective of the operation – the organisation of fair and free elections.’ 

Two phases

According to Stam, the UN mission can be divided into two phases. In the first phase, the key aim was to avoid risks.  ‘The decision was taken, for example, not to enter a particular region that was controlled by the Khmer Rouge in order to avoid the risk of coming under fire and having to respond  with violence. The UN didn’t want to risk escalation and used the restrictions they were obliged to observe under the peacekeeping mandate to justify this approach.‘

In the second phase, the peacekeeping principles were relaxed because it would otherwise not have been possible to bring the mission to a successful conclusion. In particular, the principle of neutrality was  jettisoned. ‘The mission leadership eventually resolved to reach an agreement with the Cambodian government so that free elections could be organised in a safe manner. The government militia was given the go-ahead to pre-emptively attack the Khmer Rouge if they obstructed the elections – which the Khmer Rouge actually did try to do. This agreement has never been made public because it would undoubtedly have damaged the reputation of the UN as a neutral organisation.’

No peacekeeping operation is without risk

Stam hopes that his research will contribute to a discussion on the value of keeping to the traditional peacekeeping principles during UN peacekeeping operations. Stam: ‘The UN mission in Cambodia shows that a situation in the field can change extremely rapidly and that the consent and cooperation of one of the parties involved can suddenly be withdrawn. This automatically puts pressure on the key principle of neutrality, so it’s important to be able to act with flexibility. There also needs to be greater recognition of the fact that no peacekeeping operation is without risk, and that there are times when it’s necessary to take a risk to achieve the aims of the mission.’

Wietse Stam defends his PhD on 18 October with his dissertation ‘The Imperative of Success; United Nations Peacekeeping in Cambodia (1991-1993)’. The livestream can be followed via this link.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp

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