Photo by Eric Feferberg / AFP

Paris peace conference on Cambodia in 1991.

The lessons of Cambodia for today’s Security Council and conflict resolution

Published: 11 Jan 2022

Norway, President of the UN Security Council for January 2022, is convening a “mini-Oslo Forum” style meeting of the fifteen Council members and the UN Secretary-General on 13 January.  By bringing the Oslo Forum – a well-known annual gathering in peace and security circles cancelled for the past two years due to Covid-19 – format to New York, Norway hopes to examine more deeply and with less protocol conflict prevention and mediation efforts and explore how the Council can collectively act better to meet such challenges.  The Norwegian presidency is emphasizing how the Council, which jealously preserves its privileges as the preeminent forum for matters of international peace and security, can work with other peacemaking actors.  This will include focusing on how more inclusive efforts that harness the energies of diverse sets of peace actors, and not just member states and international organizations, can be generated in different conflicts.

Cambodia as a not so distant case of conflict resolution may provide some lessons.

In the late summer of 1989, talks at the Paris peace conference to resolve the over decade long conflict in Cambodia ended in failure.  The parties – the Vietnamese-installed Phnom Penh government and the four Cambodian factions, including the Khmer Rouge – could not, above all, agree on a power-sharing formula.  Years of efforts by ASEAN and its members, by the UN Secretariat, and by the governments of Indonesia and France, seemed to have collapsed.

Nonetheless, a decade of dogged diplomacy for peace had already shaped the contours of what could be an eventual settlement.  These were: a complete withdrawal by Vietnamese forces from Cambodia; the formation of a governing body representative of the Cambodian factions; a United Nations operation to verify a withdrawal by Viet Nam and to disarm combatants; the holding of elections under UN supervision; and a transition to a democratically elected government.  What was missing to clinch the deal, as is almost always the case, was political will.  It was at this point that the Security Council’s permanent five members stepped in and took the lead. 

Over the course of 1990, the P5 met in a series of Cambodia-focused meetings alternating between Paris and New York.  Four of the P5 came to the table with divergent agendas and aims (with the UK having the least at stake in the process).  In the wake of its involvement in Viet Nam, the United States wanted to build on its ties to its allies in Southeast Asia as well as roll back or contain the influence of what it considered pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing allies.  The USSR wanted to reduce its expensive support for Viet Nam, some US$ 1 billion a year by the late 1980s, even as it sought amidst glasnost and perestroika to improve Sino-Soviet ties.  China, the state power with the most leverage over the four Cambodian opposition factions, wanted a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia even as it nurtured the Khmer Rouge as well as Prince Sihanouk.  France, carefully wishing to restore and build ties to its former Indochinese colonies, actively sought a role in the peacemaking process. 

While the above interests did not necessarily coincide, they did not collide either.  It was the right moment at the end of the Cold War: the USSR was invested in creating a new and broad relationship with China; this meant that Viet Nam was under political and financial pressure to withdraw from Cambodia.  China was willing to accept a reduced Khmer Rouge provided Vietnam withdrew and circumscribed its role in Indochina.  The P5 took on the role of peacemaking with great energy and – and perhaps this is most germane for the UN context – allowed then Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and his special representative, Rafeeuddin Ahmed, to provide valuable and patient UN Secretariat advice and inputs on peacemaking formulas including on what a post-agreement dispensation in Cambodia could look like.  As Hédi Annabi, then a young assistant to Ahmed, explained many years later: “the French asked us to write all of the annexes, and we wrote all the annexes for them, and they practically fitted them in there, lock, stock, and barrel – the annexes on the military aspects, the annex on the election, the annex on refugees… All of the annexes were written entirely by us.”

With sustained effort over the course of seven months, with a small UN team gauging the parties’ temperature and gently nudging them along, the P5 forged a framework that covered almost all Chinese concerns about Vietnam, Soviet concerns about a reduced footprint in the region, and US concerns about diminishing the presence and role of the Khmer Rouge in any future dispensation.  There was also an added emphasis – and this is salient today when we look at the role of the Security Council in upholding global norms – on building in and enhancing human rights provisions in the agreement that would eventually be signed in Paris in 1991. 

The Cambodia case vividly shows what unity of purpose in the Security Council, along with creative multilateral ideas as well as regional cooperation, can achieve.  It is true that when the war in Cambodia conclusively came to an end, when the UN launched what was at the time its largest-ever peacekeeping operation, UNTAC, and when the international community acted in concert, the times were different.  We were at the beginning of a now astonishing couple of decades of multilateral innovation, ambition and, some would say, hubris. 

Today, on the other hand, geopolitical tensions and divisions, clear for all to see in the Security Council, have come back to the forefront.  In this murky era, the need for conflict prevention and for mediation of ongoing conflicts is pressing.  Conflicts lasting over a decade in Syria and in Libya, seven years of conflict in Yemen, conflict followed by high levels of insecurity in Afghanistan, ongoing conflict in the eastern DRC, Mali, CAR, Council paralysis over Ethiopia, the list is long and even longer if one considers places where a return to conflict after years marked by agreements and post-war peace is now possible. 

Divisions in the Council have tripped up successive mediators in various conflicts.  Not all conflicts, however, remain unresolved due to geopolitical rivalries; the role and agency of those engaged in the fighting is obvious if not paramount. 

Over the past decade, the UN, foremost, has professionalized the practice of mediation.  There is a much justified and long overdue move towards making peace processes more inclusive and making them more heedful of the voices of those who have always been ignored, including before, during and after a conflict.  Some data has shown that making a process more inclusive – having women fully involved in peace talks being one of the most obvious manifestations of this – may also make the post-agreement peace more sustainable in the long term.  Others have pressed for opening diplomatic and peacemaking processes to other actors, including those on the ground (aka insider or local mediators), while all have called for better analysis and early warning and more prescience in understanding what is happening. 

But better understanding and more actors in a process do not necessarily add up to more success.  Elsewhere, my UN colleagues have argued that rather than early warning being the problem, it is finding entry points or, more bluntly, who to persuade to change their behaviour.  Having links between different tracks will not necessarily mean that those tracks will work in the same direction or towards the same goals or with the same leverage.  Those who have guns are perceived as having more power than those who are community dialogue actors.  Those who intentionally exclude do so on the basis of violence and can continue to do so.  Words do not sway them, and it can become a dilemma for those countries and organizations that advocate for inclusivity as a matter of principle to then remain involved in such a process.  This is especially true when women are excluded, often in their entirety or included only in tokenistic presences.  Norway faced this dilemma in Afghanistan last year.

Put simply, thus, those who make war must also be the ones to end it.  Those who provide support for war-making and warmongers must also put an end to it.  Those who lambast each other, in the Security Council and outside, must resolve those difference between themselves with or without the help of mediators.  Those who today use countries as playgrounds or battlefields, just as they did during the so-called Cold War, must curtail that support.

It is important for Security Council members, as they meet under the Norwegian presidency this month, to recall that while inclusivity, multi-track efforts, and early warning and engagement are important, it is the business of deal-making that stops wars.  In Cambodia, what made the deal was the geopolitics and unity of purpose amongst the P5.  Issues of inclusion and ownership are hugely important, and they must remain at the core of what we do, but their criticality is in building the peace and making the deal sustainable in the medium- to long-term.  In essence, we cannot let a welcome and increased emphasis on inclusivity and local peacebuilding compensate for geopolitical realities that make peace deals otherwise impossible.

The mediator’s responsibility and dilemma, thus, is to talk of and always emphasize peace, shared interests, human rights, and the civilian victims of conflict, even as she or he must focus on the frequently grubby demands of conflict actors.

The factors that made the Cambodia process successful relate above all to the change in the geopolitical environment.  But they also highlight the importance of giving the UN Secretary-General and his person on the ground space to manoeuvre, to explore ideas and to come up with creative formulas.  And perhaps this is one final lesson from Cambodia and a few other successful agreements from a vanishing era – that the Security Council is a vital instrument for bringing peace in our world but making peace by committee is almost impossible unless, first, the Council is united and, second, the Council gives mediators support and sufficient space to conduct their work.

Asif R. Khan, currently on leave from the United Nations, is a visiting fellow at NUPI.   

 The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of any organization.