Cambodia 30 years on: time for Australia to act again

Cambodia’s journey has been a long and harrowing one. Before the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements 30 years ago today [23 October], the country was on its knees: ravaged successively by massive US bombing, civil war, the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal reign of terror, invasion by the Vietnamese and civil war again. These onslaughts caused the deaths of some 2 million Cambodians and effectively destroyed the lives of many more.

The 1991 Paris accords did bring lasting peace to the country, and Australia can remain proud of the role we played in making that happen. We initiated the diplomatic strategy that, after many failed previous attempts, finally worked – essentially by defining an unprecedentedly hands-on role for the United Nations which gave China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support for the Khmer Rouge. Lieutenant-General John Sanderson’s leadership of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia military mission during the critical 1991-93 period was crucial to its success.

But, as I said when representing Australia at the Paris signing ceremony, “peace and freedom are not prizes which, once gained, can never be lost. They must be won again each day. Their foundations must be sunk deep into the bedrock of political stability, economic prosperity and above all, the observance of human rights.”

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