THE United Nations plan for a peaceful settlement of the Cambodian civil war is in the countdown phase, but it is also, demonstrably, in serious trouble.
As many observers predicted, the Khmer Rouge have actively worked to subvert the plan, while taking full advantage of its political provisions to advance their strategic position in outlying areas of the the country.
Their strategy has been effective. The "peacekeeping" credibility of the UN was seriously undermined last fall when the Khmer Rouge refused to disarm and demobilize. More recently, Khmer Rouge violence against ethnic Vietnamese and even UN personnel has gone unpunished, contributing to rising anxiety among the population and outright fear on the part of some UN workers. While no party in Cambodia is without blame for the deteriorating political and security situation, the Khmer Rouge alone have actively,
consistently, and openly flouted the UN process.
Now, UN officials, including Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Yasushi Akashi, head of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, are faced with an extremely serious dilemma. Any attempt to impose sanctions as elections approach would seem to further reduce Khmer Rouge incentives for exercising restraint during the balloting process. Yet, allowing the Khmer Rouge to continue their destructive acts without effective response already has weakened UN authority. Further passivity in the face of phy sical and political provocation could raise so much fear and doubt that a legitimate election could be impossible to conduct.
What to do? It may be that, for once in Cambodia's history, an obvious and simple answer is the right one.
An agreement was signed. It was forced on the Cambodian parties by their patrons among the five permanent members of the Security Council, but it was in the end conceded to, and a major commitment of UN resources resulted. Now, that agreement is being vitiated by one signatory.
This is not an issue of democratic principles or even principles of human rights, which are not accepted by all UN member nations and that therefore cannot be expected to override disparate views about what should happen in Cambodia. It is, rather, a question of whether international agreements made under UN auspices and voted on by the UN are to be honored and enforced.
The Khmer Rouge have reneged on their original commitment. If, in addition, they are able to prevent the election in Cambodia from taking place, or if they cause it to be conducted in an atmosphere of so much uncertainty and intimidation that its results cannot be validated, then the UN must act, or there will be little faith in UN promises in the future. Under such circumstances, the Khmer Rouge will have made themselves outlaws in the international community, and they should suffer whatever sanctions c an be brought to bear in consequence, including military action.
To make it less likely that such action will be called for, the Security Council needs to declare in advance its intention to seek out and punish those who willfully subvert an important UN-sanctioned agreement. The secretary-general should bring this commitment to the Security Council for affirmation now, before it's too late.
Factional hostility and violence in Cambodia pre-dated UN intervention, and are likely to continue at some level well into the future. The problem of resolving the interests of various outside parties, including those of China, Thailand, and the United States, also is many decades old, and will take time to sort out, no matter what government comes to power in Cambodia. But a determination to maintain the integrity of internationally sanctioned agreements should provide Cambodians some hope of working th rough these difficulties without the country again dissolving into chaos.
The fate of Cambodia is now inextricably linked to the role of the UN, but the prospects for the future role of the UN in world affairs are just as inextricably linked to the fate of Cambodia. This is a difficult test for the UN, at a time when it is confronting numerous other difficult tests. Inherently, the issue posed by Cambodia is as central as any: Can this organization be trusted? The answer to this question may well determine whether there is a significant peacekeeping function for the UN in the world's future.