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Cambodia's Plight Is Not the End



LONDON-- Those who sweated blood and tears to bring peace to Cambodia six years ago can be forgiven if they now say they see very little causal relationship between the magnitude of their efforts and the result now at hand--the coup d'etat by Hun Sen and the effective suspension of civil liberties.

The Cambodian veterans and the rest of those who labor wearily in the vineyard of peacemaking are manifestly at a loss what to do next. It is somewhat of a cruel irony that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has deployed as his envoy to Cambodia Thomas Hammarberg who for years, as a brilliantly effective secretary-general of Amnesty International, did much to focus the spotlight of global attention on the gruesome details of the Cambodian genocide. Now it is if, in a perverse retribution for those days, he has to pay personal penance and go back and watch, perhaps, a new round of the ``killing fields,'' this time only to wring his hands on behalf of an impotent international community.

But Mr. Hammerberg, like most of those in the peacemnaking industry, is of patient disposition. He knows full well that the relationship between external intervention and the outcome of a conflict is an uncertain science. What we do know, alas, is that negotiated settlements have led to renewed warfare within five years in about 50% of cases. Most civil wars in history have ended with the outright military victory of one side over another. And the most stable peace settlements in civil wars have been those achieved by military victory, rather than by negotiations. If it weren't for the fact that these military victories usually come with wide-spread human rights abuses, atrocities, genocide and environmental degradation, then we should probably just let nature run its course. Indeed, this was effectively the outside world's attitude during the recent crisis in Zaire, as it was not so long ago in Uganda and, more recently, in Ethiopia, both now, as it happens, very successful economic recovery stories.

Nevertheless, in eight out of ten cases the results of military victory are not as in Uganda or Ethiopia. It is on-going murder and mayhem, as it is right now in Zaire, Rwanda and Afghanistan and, as it shows all the signs of being, in Cambodia.

If peacemaking is an infant industry, all the more reason to try and fashion some new tools--what Georgetown University professor, Charles King, calls antidotes to ``the array of incentives to continue the violence.'' While outsiders have little leverage over the central elements of irrationality, contested values and identities that propel the conflict, they can work at the margins to build incentives that will dampen the violence. In this way it is possible to influence the calculations of belligerents on the pluses of a negotiated settlement.

Of course, as Clausewitz wrote, everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is very difficult. Applying the above approach to a situation as complex and bloody as Cambodia is never going to be straightforward. But, to paraphrase Clausewitz again, war is not just an act of senseless passion. Belligerents often calculate the relative costs of continuing the conflict versus reaching some kind of compromise settlement. This certainly seems to fit the case of Hun Sen who was ready to live with the compromise of the last elections, as long as he got more than his 50% share out of it.

This is why outsiders must stay engaged with Cambodia. Already the threat of a cut-off of foreign aid has seemed to have had a sobering effect on Hun Sen, despite all his bluster. He has now promised new elections.

The post-Cold War international community should take heart not just from this new commitment by Hun Sen but from its recent string of negotiating successes. Since 1988 major civil wars in Namibia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Guatemala and South Africa have been wound up, all, apart from South Africa, because of direct outside assistance. The actual number of hot wars--both inter-state and intra-state--has decreased considerably since 1989. Without a shadow of doubt the new environment of international cooperation has produced a more benign world than existed in the dark days of the Cold War. No superpower is there to stir things up in order to throw mud in its rival's eyes. According to a 1996 U.S. government report the number of persons threatened by on-going wars is now down to 42 million. Despite Rwanda, despite Zaire, Afghanistan, Liberia, Bosnia and Cambodia, and all the other places that grabbed the headlines, only around 0.7% of humanity is being hurt by war at the present time, the lowest figure in its recorded history.

This suggests that this is not the moment to give up on Cambodia. The most intractable of all the civil wars now in process, it may well be. Hun Sen's military victory may be indeed the quickest road to peace, as the thin science of peacemaking suggests. But the international community has leverage to demand more than peace as the absence of war. Democracy and human rights must be allowed to flourish in Cambodia once again. We must keep muscling in on that until we get it.


July 16, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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