ON Aug. 2, the withdrawal of United Nations forces from Cambodia began. It expected to be complete by Nov. 15. What happens then is not clear.
The UN multilateral force was mandated to enforce a cease-fire, disarm troops of the four factions in the country, and oversee elections. It has only partially succeeded. Elections were held in May, and a government has been established with Prince Norodom Sihanouk as head of state. But continued resistance of the Khmer Rouge to all forms of cooperation, unless their representatives are included in the government, has forestalled disarmament.
The Cambodian experience raises serious questions about the UN role in civil conflicts. The initial hope in Cambodia was that all parties could be drawn into the election process and the UN mission completed. That hope existed in Angola as well. In both cases, however, heavily armed political factions balked.
The same approach is now to be applied in Liberia. On July 25, three warring parties in that country signed a peace agreement that calls for disarmament, followed by elections in February. The prospect remains of a repeat of either the Cambodian model of a major armed force backing away from the agreement, or of the Angolan model in which a powerful party refused to accept the results of the vote.
As these cases suggest, elections are not the end of the process, but only the beginning. Even when the cooperation of parties can be assured, the establishment of a working democratic system and the rebuilding of a country are far from certain.
The Cambodian experience points to another post-election problem: the international acceptability of parties in a coalition government. Prince Sihanouk believes it necessary to bring the Khmer Rouge into a government coalition if peace is to return to the country.
The United States has informed the prince that it would be difficult for Washington to continue assistance to a Cambodia with the party of the "killing fields" in the government. It would be extremely difficult to obtain congressional approval for assistance to a government so constituted. Would similar problems arise if Jonas Savimbi forced his way to power in Angola - or Charles Taylor, reportedly responsible for the massacre of missionaries in Liberia, became head of state? Probably.
UN Security Council resolutions are often drafted under the pressures of an immediate crisis and with the intent of getting the maximum level of member support. Measures are authorized that are clearly desirable at the moment, whether the convoying of relief, or the disarming of factions are adopted - with democratic elections as the ultimate hope. Yet, more and more, UN experience suggests that the task of helping a nation recover from internal conflict goes far beyond these measures and will require co mmitments in forces and resources UN members are unwilling to provide.
When the UN enters a country, little thought is given to the conditions under which its presence will end. In Cambodia that end may come after the terms of a resolution are met, but well before genuine conditions of peace are established. In the absence of long-term commitments, peace may be only temporary.