The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


A Continuation of Politics by Other Means: The "Politics" of a Peacekeeping Mission in Cambodia (1992-1993)

A Continuation of Politics by Other Means: The 'Politics' of a Peacekeeping Mission in Cambodia (1992-1993) - Cover

Authored by Boraden Nehm.

February 2011

86 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author departs from conventional wisdom that addresses factors such as mandates, spoilers, and the like, and ignores political factors. He explores Cambodian conflict and peace operations as a complex and interactive situation in which local political conditions were paramount and directly challenged UN peacekeeping principles of neutrality. He observes that UN peacekeeping missions can be too tied to theory and doctrine while ignoring reality. The author argues for missions that understand the inherent complexity of peacekeeping, recognize emerging realities, and adapt accordingly.


Since the establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945, 63 peacekeeping missions have been authorized by UN mandate. Some fell directly under the UN, and others were conducted under UN authorization by lead nations. The mandates have been justified under UN Charter VI, “Pacific Settlement of Disputes,” and Chapter VII, “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.” Regardless of intent, the UN record in peacekeeping is one of mixed success. Numerous reasons for the failed or less than successful peacekeeping missions are offered: vague or weak mandates, conflicting objectives, ambiguous rules of engagement (ROE), and unanticipated spoilers rank high among these. This paper uses the UN Cambodian peacekeeping mission of 1992-93, considered a great success by many, to examine the complexities involved in UN peacekeeping missions and to illustrate the primacy of the political context in determining success.

Peacekeeping is a civil-military operation on the UN’s Spectrum of Peace and Security Activities. Whereas conflict prevention uses structural or diplomatic measures to preclude conflict within or among states, peacemaking applies measures, usually diplomatic, to bring hostile parties to fruitful negotiations. Peacekeeping missions aim to prevent the resumption of fighting by guaranteeing security for the parties of the conflict until a foundation for resolving the conflict and a sustainable peace is laid. It generally involves the separation of forces, the laying down of arms by the belligerents, the reintegration of the belligerents into society, and the facilitation of the resumption of a degree of normalcy within society. Recent conflicts with their almost wanton disregard of human rights and mistreatment of civilians have made the protection of civilians a key component of the peace process. Peace enforcement is an operation where coercive measures, including the use of threat of military force, are used to restore international peace and security. Peace-building, the last component of the operational spectrum, uses a range of measures to reduce the risk of a relapse into conflict and is a long-term process focused on a sustainable peace. While these operations are distinct in doctrine, the measures and actions used in application and issues confronted often appear similar. Nonetheless, the purpose of each operation is distinct, even as all seek to create peace and stability.

While peacekeeping has evolved, it remains distinct and useful as an operational concept along the spectrum of peace and security activities. However, it is not without its conceptual liabilities. Historically and today, peacekeeping operations adhere to three basic principles: (1) consent of the parties, (2) impartiality, and (3) nonuse of force except in self-defense—and more recently the defense of the mandate. The first predicates the mission and its success on the consent of the main parties to the conflict and their commitment to a political process and support of the UN force. The second argues that retaining consent is based on implementing the mandate without favor or prejudice to any party. The last principle has evolved from an absolute policy of no use of force except in self-defense to a more realistic reflection of the authorization of the use of force to deter attempts to undermine the peace process with force and to protect civilians. The Cambodian experience reveals how these liabilities affect the progress of peace.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia between 1992 and 1993 (the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia [UNTAC]) is an excellent precursor of the growing complexity of 21st century peacekeeping. While it has been studied before, there are two main problems with the literature and practice in peacekeeping operations that it highlights.

First, at the theoretical level, while a peacekeeping operation is a complex phenomenon with many different variables involved, scholars in the past have tended to use mono-causal theories to explain the success and failure of peacekeeping missions. Works that address the complexities of the interactions among the many variables are quite rare. Moreover, the debate has turned to what good mandates are and maintaining peace versus protection of civilians, rather than how to accomplish the overarching goal of all mandates which is a sustainable peace.

Second, at the practical level, much attention has been paid to the establishment of good guiding principles and optimal ROE for peacekeepers, but much less attention has been given to how political components of the mission should integrate with military components in the complex environment of peacekeeping. Integration is ad hoc, too often responding to each new problem, as opposed to shaping the situation proactively.

In Cambodia, UNTAC confronted the full complexity of peacekeeping as the Cold War mechanisms for stability collapsed and the UN struggled with the new order. All the variables and nuances of 21st century peacekeeping were present from vague mandates to spoilers and their patrons. Previous studies of the Cambodian peacekeeping mission have been too myopic and fail to address important matters contributing to a valid assessment of whether or not UNTAC met its mandates. Many of the works also differ in their conclusions, and there is a need to integrate and compare these efforts to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the UNTAC mission’s strengths and weaknesses. Cambodia was largely a successful operation, and as a case study continues to provide important insights as to what constitutes best practices in peacekeeping missions.

UN peacekeeping missions always have external and internal political components. The situation in Cambodia at the time of the UN intervention was complicated and had been so for years. The conflicting parties agreed to a UN peacekeeping mission because they recognized that they could not resolve the political paradox in which Cambodia found itself, and no one was happy with the status quo. Foreign interventions had played a contributing role in Cambodia’s turmoil, but the paradox was purely Cambodian. Negotiations were necessary because no party by itself could successfully govern in Cambodia.

In hindsight, some of the difficulties and failures of the operation could have been foreseen with a more careful consideration of the external and internal context. In this regard, no theoretical or doctrinal construct should ignore the emerging realities on the ground and must adapt to the new circumstances. In its revelation of the complex and interactive nature and centrality of local political conditions, the Cambodian case study suggests a number of important premises for future peacekeeping doctrine to consider.

Access Full Report [PDF]: A Continuation of Politics by Other Means: The "Politics" of a Peacekeeping Mission in Cambodia (1992-1993)

Join the mailing list