Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The United Nations’ involvement in Cambodia, 25 years on

The United Nations’ involvement in Cambodia, 25 years on

On October 23, 1991, the Paris Peace Accords were signed by 19 participating countries, and included the creation of UNTAC. Eric Feferberg/AFP
On October 23, 1991, the Paris Peace Accords were signed by 19 participating countries, and included the creation of UNTAC. Eric Feferberg/AFP

The United Nations’ involvement in Cambodia, 25 years on

The United Nations’ involvement in Cambodia witnessed important changes in the second half of the 1980s. Bilateral and regional talks were stepping up. The discussion between Vietnam and Indonesia, and the first private meeting between HRH Prince Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen in late 1987 in Paris contributed to the Jakarta Informal Meeting (JIM1, JIM2 and JIM3).

The collapse of the Soviet Union made China and Vietnam – Cambodia’s communist masters – acquiesce that time is ripening to look each other in the eye and to leave behind animosities – like HRH Prince Sihanouk told Henry Kissinger: “Let bygones be bygones”.

Raoul Jennar, the author of Cambodia Chronicles 1989-1996, argues that Cambodia’s conflict-settlement saw a significant development when the Framework Agreement was presented and with the establishment of the Supreme National Council. And the two patrons told their respective proteges to take up a reconciliation approach in negotiations.

Thus, on October 23, 1991, the Agreement on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, better known as the Paris Peace Accords (PPA), was signed by 19 participating countries, and included the creation of UNTAC.

But UNTAC legacy saw both blessings and anathemas.

David Chandler, the author of Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot, argues that UNTAC’s operation was the most expensive and saw the highest number of people employed ever seen in the UN’s history. More than 25,000 people were involved and over $3 billion was spent on this mission.

The UN had deinternationalised the Cambodia conflict and brought about a partial national reconciliation, and permitted Cambodians for the first time in 40 years to choose their government in a comparatively free and fair and democratic manner, as stated by Trevor Findlay, the author of Cambodia: The Legacy and Lesson of UNTAC.

Overall, it was fair for the UN to claim the Cambodia exercise as its first major success that could establish benchmarks for future UN operations. As Boutros Boutros Ghali, the then UN secretary-general, put it: “A new system of international cooperation for peace building has been launched here. This operation will influence the nature and scope of future UN mandates and operations all over the world.”

However, Michael Ratner, a co-editor of International Prosecution of Human Rights Crimes, claims that actually the peace process was aimed at foreigners and not at Cambodians – the process was motivated by self-serving intentions.

Prime Minister Hun Sen argued: “We no longer had control. What could we have gained? The Vietnamese wanted a settlement. The Chinese wanted a settlement. The US wanted a settlement. They all wanted a settlement on their terms,” according to David Roberts, the author of Political Transition in Cambodia 1991-99: Power, Elitism and Democracy.

The UN was unable to bring total peace, leaving Cambodia divided – the Khmer Rouge still occupied some territories along the border. In addition, UN had left one lasting legacy in Cambodia – AIDS, as stated by Peter Maguire, the author of Facing Death in Cambodia. In 1992 Richard Holbrook pointed out that, “it is clear that these [UN personnel] are going to both spread AIDS and bring AIDS home with them”.

The recruitment of UNTAC’s military and civil police did not follow UN’s criteria. Some countries’ military contributions were tainted with criminal records. Findlay claimed “30 percent of the Bulgarian battalion were former prisoners; a dozen of them threatened to kill [UNTAC’s commanding general, Australian General John Sanderson] unless he increased their pay …”

The civil police was also earning a bad reputation. Some of them did not possess drivers’ licences, required by the UN as a minimum prerequisite. Although they were meant to be unarmed, some of them bought weapons from police of the State of Cambodia (SOC), the precursor to the Cambodian People’s Party.

There were no clear PPA provisions providing an enforcement mechanism when the violations happened. The implementations were based on the good faith of all parties – as Findlay put it: “The PPA are all carrots and no stick”.

The implementation of the accords was flawed from the beginning. The prerequisite in involving Khmer Rouge in any peace process and the sluggishness in sending UN personnel to Cambodia gave rise to earlier suspicions about UN credibility and commitment.

A Chilean Navy officer, from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, and a young Cambodian boy adopted by the unit salute during a cantonment ceremony on June 13, 1992, in Phnom Penh. AFP
A Chilean Navy officer, from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, and a young Cambodian boy adopted by the unit salute during a cantonment ceremony on June 13, 1992, in Phnom Penh. AFP

HRH Prince Sihanouk decried UNTAC’s absence in this crucial phase as leaving the four Cambodian factions without a neutral mediator to ease the existing political and military tension between them.

UNTAC also suffered a bad reputation for its cowardly actions. For example, a convoy accompanied by UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi and General Sanderson attempting to enter Pailin was halted by a Khmer Rouge young-soldier checkpoint. Critics argued that this produced a negative turning point in the perception towards UNTAC’s effectiveness.

To the SOC, UNTAC’s failure justified it as a paper tiger. Others referred to UNTAC soldiers as mercenaries in Cambodia to collect a salary. In spite of these shortcomings, the United Nations Security Council decided to stick to the election scheduled for May 1993.

With no hope of survival through political means, on April 4, 1993, Khieu Samphan formally announced that the Khmer Rouge would not take part in the election, arguing that Vietnam continued to occupy Cambodia and a neutral political environment did not exist.

In many ways, this election went down the same path as that of 1955, which were marred by numerous violent incidents, murders, intimidation, undemocratic practices and vote buying.

From May 23-28, 1993, an estimated 89.5 percent of the 4.6 million enrolled voters cast their ballots, despite the Khmer Rouge threatening to disrupt the poll – and it did.

The election result of the 120 seats gave FUNCINPEC 58, CPP 51, BLDP 10 and Molinaka Party 1.

A day later Akashi declared the election “free and fair”, supported by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and other foreign observers, and the UN Security Council. Jennar commented that Cambodians were able to make a free and fair choice. David Chandler, the author of A History of Cambodia, argues that it was the first time in history that the majority of Cambodians had voted against an armed incumbent government.

A coalition government was created in which Prince Ranariddh became first prime minster, and Hun Sen was second prime minister. The country was renamed the Kingdom of Cambodia. Then UNTAC’s role in Cambodia came to an end.

Jennar argues that the Human Rights Council, which in the past ignored Khmer Rouge rights abuses, now set up regulations on human rights in Cambodia. As such, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was established, and the appointment of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, currently Professor Rhona Smith, ensues.

Astonishingly, while folding their tents after declaring a successful mission, UNTAC left behind an unresolved drama – the Khmer Rouge.

Caroline Hughes, author of Political Economy of Cambodia’s Transition, 1991-2001, claims that the augmentation of aid to the government and the cessation of support to the Khmer Rouge contributed in some ways to the end of this movement.

In fact, the beginning of the end of the Khmer Rouge had already started since the collapse of the USSR, the coming together of China and Russia, the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops, the involvement of the countries in the region, the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the contribution of UNTAC.

In a nutshell, there were a number of factors contributing to the end of the Khmer Rouge, but the key factor was the surrender of Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s win-win policy, together with the capture of Ta Mok, which brought about the total dismantling of the regime. As Akashi put it: “One has to pay tribute to Mr Hun Sen, the prime minister, for having achieved the final demise of the Khmer Rouge.”

Ney Sam Ol is the ambassador/permanent representative of Cambodia to the United Nations Office at Geneva. This article is part of his research project as a PhD student at the University of Leeds School of Law.


  • Phnom Penh unveils rules for post-lockdown transition

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Administration issued a set of detailed guidelines for the seven days to May 12 after the capital emerges from lockdown at the onset of May 6. In the 14-page document signed by municipal governor Khuong Sreng released on the evening of May 5, the

  • SBI LY HOUR Bank Launches Cross Border Money Transfer Service between Cambodia and Vietnam on RippleNet, utilizing DLT

    SBI LY HOUR Bank Plc and Hanoi-based Tien Phong Commercial Joint Stock Bank (TPBank) on Friday launched the first Cambodia-Vietnam money transfer service in real currency via RippleNet, provided by SBI Ripple Asia Co Ltd to provide safe, fast and convenient services. SBI LY HOUR

  • Gov’t issues guidelines as lockdown nears end

    The government has issued a five-page set of instructions to be enforced when the three-week lockdown of Phnom Penh and adjacent Takmao town in Kandal province ends on May 6. According to an announcement signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 4, the instructions cover a

  • Cambodia ready to exit LDC status

    Cambodia is well-prepared to minimise economic risks when it graduates from its Least Developed Countries status, according to a senior official at the Ministry of Commerce on May 7. Four LDCs – Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh and Nepal – met at a virtual workshop last week to explore potential

  • Nine US franchises eye Cambodia debut

    Nine famous US franchising companies are looking for business opportunities and expansion into Cambodia to build a footstep for a strong foundation in Southeast Asia. The US embassy in Phnom Penh, in partnership with the US Foreign Commercial Service and with support from the American

  • Lost in translation: ‘Starvation’ in capital’s designated red zones

    “DACH bay” is a Khmer slang meaning a “loss of income”, that could also be literally translated to «deprived of rice”, which alludes to starvation. However, civil society organisation (CSO) officials have independently confirmed the government’s prior assertions that there are no cases of