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Cambodia’s blue helmets: A commitment to internationalism

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Cambodian peacekeepers march at a send-off ceremony in April last year ahead of deploying to South Sudan and Mali. Heng Chivoan

Cambodia’s blue helmets: A commitment to internationalism

When Minister of National Defence Tea Banh honoured 280 peacekeepers who recently returned from Mali and South Sudan on August 9, the ceremony also celebrated Cambodia’s commitment to internationalism.

For Cambodia, the contributions of Cambodian peacekeepers to both these countries not only illustrates a commitment to preventing conflict but also to the UN – a global institution with one central mission since the end of the World War II – the maintenance of international peace and security.

However, the legitimacy of global governance institutions like the UN has been called into question by a hostile US administration and the geo-political shift in power from West to East.

Both UN peacekeeping missions are considered to be extremely dangerous and deadly.

In Mali, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a “high risk” of atrocities with the upsurge in violence by extremist groups.

In South Sudan, violence continues to plague tens of thousands of civilians fuelled by government and opposition groups under the backdrop of a fragile peace agreement.

However, to the ordinary Malians and South Sundaneses, the presence of the blue helmets is a visible symbol of the international community’s commitment to peace and security in their countries.

Since the creation of the UN in 1945, there have been more than 70 peacekeeping operations.

Without its own military, the UN must rely on the goodwill of its member states to contribute troops.

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of military personnel, police and civilians from over 120 countries have participated in UN peacekeeping operations.

With one of the hardest jobs in the world, countries are reluctant to risk the lives of their soldiers in conflicts in which they have no stake.

Unexpectedly, the bulk of UN peacekeepers are from developing countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Rwanda – and not from the West.

Like many countries affected by conflict, Cambodia experienced first hand the vital role played by the blue helmets in maintaining peace and security.

From February 1992 to September 1993, UN peacekeepers were deployed to Cambodia as part of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac), which was established to ensure the implementation of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.

To many Cambodians this was a pivotal period in the country’s history, with a return to normality after three decades of civil war.

With limited economic and military capabilities, Cambodia has continuously provided troops to UN peacekeeping missions.

Since 2006, Cambodia has deployed more than 6,000 blue helmets specialising in demining and engineering to conflict areas in the Middle East and Africa. As of June 2019, Cambodia ranked 29th out of 122 countries contributing 784 peacekeepers.

In comparison to other Asean countries, Cambodia is the third largest contributor behind Indonesia and Malaysia.

As conflicts throughout the world become more complex and high risk, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on member states to fill “critical gaps” in UN peacekeeping operations, such as improvements to equipment and increasing the contributions of troops to enhance UN capabilities.

In response, the Cambodian government budgeted $15 million to buy armoured vehicles for Cambodian peacekeepers in Mali and pledged to continue its participation in UN peacekeeping missions.

By strengthening its engagement in the UN through one of its key departments – UN Peacekeeping – Cambodia exemplified its ability to fully engage in international affairs and in turn bolster its international standing as well.

There’s a cost in wanting to play a role in the world.

The Cambodian government’s initial investment is noteworthy; however, the government should be prepared to budget accordingly to ensure its peacekeepers are equipped with the best equipment and receive the best training.

No words can underscore the pride and gratitude of a country to its troops for their sacrifice and service to international peace and security.

However, as Cambodia continues to ramp up its engagement in UN peacekeeping operations, Cambodians at home must understand the context of our engagement.

To truly honour and thank our troops, the best method is learning what they actually do.

Awareness is essential in not only fostering public support for our foreign policy of internationalism but also moral support for our troops.

Despite complex global challenges, it is clear Cambodia remains committed to internationalism by upholding the vision and mandate of the UN.

Darren Touch is a Schwarzman Scholar pursuing a Master of Global Affairs at Tsinghua University, and a recent graduate from the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs from the University of British Columbia.

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