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A Peacekeeping Success, With Caveats

A peace statue at the United Nations in New York
A peace statue at the United Nations in New York
In recent years Cambodia has sent peacekeepers to three African countries. It is poised to host a major multi-national peacekeeping exercise later this year. And although Cambodia has not yet achieved all its goals, the author of a new book on peacekeeping says Cambodia’s experience was a success.

Mats Berdal is a professor of war studies at King’s College in London and the author of a new book about peace-building.

He warns that peacekeeping goals can often be over-ambitious. But he said in the case of Cambodia, peacekeepers brought many benefits that should not be overlooked.

“Cambodia perhaps doesn’t meet the standards of a mature liberal democracy, but it’s a very different place from what it used to be. It has a flourishing civil society, it has a free press, it has had elections.”

Berdal acknowledged that he had not been to Cambodia, but he noted that the country could have benefited from more follow-ups on issues like human rights following the UN withdrawal.

“The UNTAC mission was designed to transform, or help transform, the political, institutional, and social fabric of society in order to overcome deep-seated internal animosities,” he said.

But while the $1.6-billion mission helped restore fundamental peace in Cambodia, it did not stamp out rights violations and left an internal power struggle well after the UN had left.

In a recent discussion of his 2009 book, “Building Peace After War,” at a think-tank in Washington, Berdal noted that peacekeeping can be difficult anywhere, because it is so broadly defined.

“According to the UN, peacekeeping covers everything from integrated and coordinated actions aimed at addressing the root causes of violence where the political, legal, institutional, military, humanitarian, human rights related, environmental, economic, social, cultural and demographic,” he said.

He said the problem is that such comprehensive term lacks "any sense of priorities." Nor does it seek “to differentiate in the strategic sense between these objectives.”

Peace operations have traditionally been ambitious in their mandates and numbers. Professor Berdal said their number exploded after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US, and at present stands at 61 missions with 170,000 troops deployed worldwide.

Ambassador Wegger Strommen of Norway, who was a participant in the book discussion, called peace-building a tedious process with multiple phases that requires sustained commitment.

“You need to take a look at institution-building as well and we try to do that,” he said. “Take Haiti for instance. What we’re trying to do in Haiti is to help out a little bit. We’re trying to build up certain institutions. No matter what Haiti is going to look like in the future, they really need to get some of these institutions up and working.”

Berdal says this governance structure is crucial to the legitimacy of intervening outsiders, but that traditionally there has been an overemphasis on a Western approach of social “re-engineering,” ignoring local dynamics of conflict.

He cited Iraq as an example. A 20-year record suggests that “stability cannot really be imposed on war-torn societies from the outside” and has to be elicited, he said.

“The relative success of a peace-building intervention depends not only on the conduct and actions of the outsider, but also on the degree to which governance structures are put in place and promoted and that it command legitimacy in the eyes of local parties, neighboring states, and the wider international community,” he said.

However, Berdal believes that given the seemingly “operational overstretch” of peace missions at a time of global economic crisis, we should be more “humble” and realistic about goal-setting in peace-building.