The end of the cold war and the withdrawal of major powers from conflicts around
the world have not always produced the peace dividends that were expected. Fighting
has often continued. In some countries, societies have been so devastated by years
of war and economic collapse that the state itself may be said to have "failed."
In this context, the United Nations has increasingly been called in to make peace
between former proxies of foreign governments. But in the process it has suddenly
found itself also faced with the even more difficult challenge of assisting in rebuilding
state and social structures, while containing nascent forces of ethnic hatred and
Freed of cold war restraints, multilateral diplomacy has found the initial task of
securing cease-fire agreements between warring parties relatively easy. But once
extricated from their international contexts, local factions have found new reasons
to prevent reconciliation, forcing the U.N. deeper into its new and more intrusive
role of overseeing transition to popular government and even directly administering
Many types of political solutions to local conflicts may be possible. Local realities
and the resources made available to the U.N. must always be taken into account. But
the U.N., given its fundamental commitment to human rights, must of course ensure
that its new "peacemaking" role is one that also promotes and protects
basic freedoms. While stability enforced by a new repressive state may be possible
in the short term, only stability emanating from a democratic polity will be viable
in the long term. Lasting peace in ravaged societies will, of necessity, entail guarantees
of human rights.
Ensuring respect for human rights may seem an additional burden, considering the
already ominous responsibilities of a peacekeeping operation, but it may also be
seen as a great opportunity, given the real vacuum in leadership and in ideas of
government in many countries as well as worldwide trends toward democratization.
The framers of the Paris peace accords, which formally ended more than two decades
of civil war and foreign intervention in Cambodia, included an unprecedented human
rights mandate for the United Nations. The U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia
(or UNTAC), established by the accords, has been charged with controlling five key
areas of administration to create a "neutral political environment" for
"free and fair elections." These elections, in turn, would lead to the
drafting and adoption of a new liberal democratic constitution.
Alongside this, UNTAC would monitor and report on violations of human rights abuses,
taking "corrective action" where necessary and conducting a broad program
of human rights education, spreading ideas about human rights in a country whose
recent history had become a symbol for the massive abuse of state and military power.
While UNTAC has a separate human rights component, the organization was structured
so that all parts of its operation would assist in the protection of human rights.
In particular, it was hoped that UNTAC's mandate to "control" five key
areas of administration, including defense and public security, would work to end
abuses by local authorities.
Education was envisaged as the cornerstone of UNTAC's human rights activities. Given
Cambodia's recent past it was seen as imperative that information about basic rights
and freedoms be widely disseminated to help support new democratic processes.
Over the past year, UNTAC has conducted hundreds of seminars and training sessions
for various groups such as university students, journalists, healthcare workers,
police, judicial officers, political party members and others. Hundreds more general
briefings on human rights, particularly those rights closely related to the elections,
have also been held for the general population. Television and radio programs have
been produced and broadcast and new human rights curricula for schools have been
There has been a tremendous demand for human rights education, reflecting perhaps
the deep desire of the Cambodian people for a radical break with the recent past.
The continuation of international support for education projects, particularly the
training of officials and others directly involved in human rights related areas,
will be critical in further strengthening Cambodia's new democracy.
The other major part of UNTAC's human rights activities has been the monitoring of
"existing administrative structures," investigating allegations of human
rights violations, and taking, where possible, appropriate redress measures.
As key aspects of the Cambodian peace plan did not proceed as envisaged, most notably
the demobilization of soldiers, access to all zones, and the difficulties faced in
exercising control over "existing administrative structures," the monitoring
of human rights violations committed by Cambodian authorites became more important.
The exercise of "control" in order to secure a neutral political environment
and end human rights abuses would have been a daunting task even if the peace process
had gone exactly as planned, given the time frame involved and the resources available
to UNTAC. With the refusal of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea to demobilize its
troops and continue to participate in the process (which led to all factions not
demobilizing) and related resistance to close UNTAC supervision of the State of Cambodia's
security apparatus, UNTAC through its control function was hard pressed to prevent
mounting political violence.
The unwillingness of Cambodian authorities to properly investigate, apprehend, and
prosecute people suspected of involvement in political violence compelled UNTAC to
undertake its own arrests and prosecutions. This unprecedented step by a U.N. peacekeeping
operation, taken late in 1992, did help to stem political violence. The prosecution
of arrested suspects remains problematic, given the absence of a fully independent
judiciary, but at least some message of accountability for violations was made.
An increasing preoccupation of UNTAC in the area of human rights has been the ethnic
killings which have taken place and which have thus far claimed over one hundred
lives. Attacks against ethnic Vietnamese civilians by units of the National Army
of Democratic Kampuchea have also been accompanied by racist rhetoric from several
parties inciting ethnic hatred.
While issues fueling ethnic rivalries can only be resolved over a period of time
and by local leaders, immediate measures, such as providing security to vulnerable
populations and public information campaigns to defuse tensions and reduce violence,
can be undertaken by the U.N.
In all of its human rights activities, UNTAC has found it necessary to work very
closely with the local non-governmental community.
The very nature of human rights work, which often involves confronting misuse of
power by state authorities, means that the U.N. can not simply rely upon cooperation
with governmental bodies. By encouraging the development of indigenous human rights
organizations as well as working to strengthen other aspects of civil society such
as a free press, UNTAC complemented traditional diplomacy with more popularly oriented
If the United Nations presence in Cambodia is to lead to genuinely democratic government
and long term stability, the social and governmental institutions vital for the protection
of basic human rights need to be developed. These include an independent judiciary,
a free press, viable state institutions capable of providing basic social services,
an educated professional class, and indigenous non-governmental organizations able
and willing to promote the interests of representative government. Elections alone
cannot guarantee political freedom and representative government. The rebuilding
of institutions is a vital area in which the international community must invest
for the next generations if multifaceted U.N. peacekeeping operations of this type
are to be successful.
Human rights in the context of countries such as Cambodia means first ensuring for
the people their most fundamental rights, such as right to life and security and
a basic standard of living. Promoting and protecting human rights in such a context
is thus initially a process of rebuilding good government and civil society, where
only arbitrary military authority formerly existed.
This is clearly a long term process but one which must start with the peacekeeping
operation itself. Maintaining peace is only possible in the long term with effective
state structures, law and order, and a degree of economic stability. The immediate
reform or rebuilding of governmental institutions, the enforcement of law and order
and emergency economic rehabilitation are key aspects of moving towards respect for
basic human rights in countries, similar to Cambodia, where the U.N. is increasingly
being asked to play a highly interventionist role.
Coupled with this broad human rights task, UNTAC has also been made responsible for
the holding of free and fair elections. This means that the basic civil and political
rights essential for this transition must also be in place, a difficult task in many
countries with little history of democratic processes.
Human rights in peacekeeping operations must be part of an integrated approach aimed
at reasserting non-repressive state control where no effective state institutions
exist, while at the same time strengthening the essential institutions of civil society.
All this must be supported by firm measures to rehabilitate the economy and improve
If human rights are not seen as part of such an integrated approach, and if international
commitment and support to this process stops with the peacekeeping operation following
elections, massive international intervention through the U.N. in countries such
as Cambodia, will be unlikely to achieve its objective of establishing lasting and
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily
reflect those of the United Nations.