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Cambodia: The Legacy and Lessons of UNTAC

Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN 0-19-829186-8
238 pp.

The UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia in 1992-93 was unique. It was the first occasion on which the UN has taken over the administration of an independent member state, organized and run an election (as opposed to monitoring or supervising), had its own radio station and gaol, and been responsible for promoting and safeguarding human rights at national level. As the most comprehensive 'second-generation' UN peace operation to date, it is replete with lessons for the future.

Trevor Findlay provides a fascinating account of the difficult issues of principle and precedent in the Cambodia operation and of the practical aspects, setting them against the political background of continuing unrest in the country, the non-co-operation of the local factions, the position of the international community and the UN's valiant but flawed management of its mission.

The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was set up in February 1992 to implement the Paris Peace Accords of October 1991, the product of intense diplomatic activity over many years. Its job was to restore peace and civil government in a country ruined by decades of civil war and neglect, to hold free and fair elections leading to a new constitution and to 'kick-start' the rehabilitation of the country. It was to exercise 'supervision' or 'supervision or control' over all aspects of government, including foreign affairs, national defence, finance, public security and information, and to supervise, monitor and verify the withdrawal and non-return of foreign military forces; to canton, disarm and demobilize Cambodia's fighting factions, confiscate caches of weapons and military supplies, promote and protect human rights, oversee military security and maintain law and order, repatriate and resettle refugees and displaced persons, assist in mine clearance and the establishment of training programmes in mine clearance and mine awareness, rehabilitate essential infrastructure and assist in economic reconstruction and development.

Headed by Yasushi Akashi, with Lieutenant-General John Sanderson as the head of the Military Component, UNTAC involved 15 900 military, 3600 civilian police, 2000 civilians and 450 UN Volunteers, as well as locally recruited staff and interpreters. It cost over $1.5 billion, and was carried out within budget and on time.

UNTAC's most notable success was the preparations for and conduct of the elections. An estimated 89.5 per cent of the population voted in the first real elections ever held in the country. UNTAC also succeeded in isolating the Khmer Rouge, beginning the tortuous process of national reconciliation and giving the Cambodian people for the first time in almost 40 years the opportunity to choose their government in a comparatively free, fair and democratic manner. A new constitution was written, a new government formed, and an integrated national army was established. In addition UNTAC repatriated all Cambodian refugees from the Thai border and closed the camps there, freed the press, alleviated conditions in the prisons, started the gargantuan task of mine clearance, imparted new skills to thousands of Cambodians, fostered the rapid growth of human rights consciousness and other civic values and began restoring Cambodia's shattered infrastructure. UNTAC achieved immense success in its 'hearts and minds' campaign and in its use of civilian volunteers.


Important lessons from the Cambodia operation

  • Intense efforts should be made to reduce the delay between a negotiated settlement and deployment of a peacekeeping force and its associated mechanisms and infrastructure. UN peacekeeping operations should 'hit the ground running' and be prepared to take control immediately. UNTAC's late deployment was one of the biggest flaws of the Cambodia mission.


  • The UN Secretariat lacked the experience, resources and qualified personnel to organize a mission of such complexity, magnitude and novelty at short notice. The negotiators of the peace accords and the UN Security Council apparently gave little thought to how the Secretariat might cope or whether it might need additional resources to organize and maintain UNTAC.


  • The inadequacy of its advance planning affected UNTAC for the whole of its life cycle. Apart from the lack of capacity at UN headquarters, advance planning was hindered by a disjunction between the negotiation of the Paris Accords and their implementation. All the senior leadership-designate of a peacekeeping mission should be involved, where possible, in the negotiation and planning phases leading up to deployment.


  • The Paris Peace Accords had set the UN a seemingly impossible schedule. The Cambodia operation has been called by some critics a race against time.


  • The usual practice in UN peacekeeping missions of handing over the entire mission to the force commander to manage was seriously inadequate in the case of the Cambodia operation. Contact with UN headquarters was spasmodic. The secondment of dedicated mission liaison officers to New York on a short-rotation basis should be standard procedure for the duration of such complex missions in future.


  • UN financial and administrative procedures were complex and time-consuming. Greater delegation of financial authority and faster and more flexible procurement procedures would all have helped the functioning of UNTAC's administration.


  • Criticism of the UN Secretariat alone for its organizational lapses in the Cambodian operation is, however, unfair. It should also be directed at the international community and the Security Council for not equipping the UN with the requisite capacity before entrusting it with such a mission.


  • UNTAC's loose strategic co-ordination arrangements resulted in waste, duplication of effort and lack of synergy. Better strategic co-ordination is needed between the components of large multi-purpose UN missions. Proper co-ordination between the military and civilian personnel of peacekeeping missions is essential and the UN must develop a more sophisticated conception of the operation of multifunctional missions. The improvisation that characterized much of UNTAC's performance, noble though it may have been, cannot be the basis for future UN exercises in nation building.


  • A complex organization like UNTAC, which needs to be established quickly and to operate efficiently from the outset, should have among its leadership someone with the requisite high-level managerial training and organizational experience, perhaps with a background in a multinational corporation. UN bureaucrats may not have such skills.


  • Future such operations involving control of a civilian administration will need to take into account the possibility of both active and passive opposition to UN supervision and control.


  • The use of force in any future operations to deal with violations of a cease-fire or with threats to a UN peackekeeping operation must be backed up by the proper military capacity, and the UN should be more prepared to capitalize on its political advantages. Future missions must also be prepared to wrest control promptly and confidently from the local authorities when they are mandated to do so. UNTAC was not equipped for enforcement, nor was it part of its mandate, and to make it so would have been politically impossible. In the event, it did not need to defend itself. It was able to maintain a strict definition of 'self-defence', minimum use of force and neutrality; Akashi opted for a 'low-key administrative approach' consistent with his general handling of Khmer Rouge defiance and intimidation of voters, and the 'worst case'—a major Khmer Rouge attack on polling day—in fact never happened—fortunately. The case could have been very different.


  • The mixed experience of the military contingents from some countries probably indicates that the use of reservists and conscripts for peacekeeping operations is not appropriate and that it is more efficient to restrict the number of countries from which contingents are drawn. The UN in future should be more selective about the countries from which forces are made up.


  • The civil police element in any comprehensive peacekeeping mission is critical to good relations with the local populace and must be the subject of more careful UN attention. In Cambodia they were seriously under-prepared, confused about their role and lacking in essential support.


  • Human rights should be a paramount concern in cases where government authority has collapsed or when a neutral political environment is required for electoral purposes. The UN should develop 'justice packages' comprising all the elements of a model legal system which can be employed when the UN is required to take over the administration of 'failed states' or those otherwise needing temporary international tutelage.


  • The UN should be more conscious of the possible undesired economic consequences of its intervention in a country and be prepared to offset them, using its own economic weight in creative ways.

Subsequent political developments in Cambodia have not been encouraging, but the passage of time has made it clear that they do not constitute an indictment of the UNTAC operation. No international operation can guarantee the continued peaceful democratic development of a country. In this case, as in others, it is up to the Cambodians themselves.