In 1991, the international community came together to sign the landmark Paris Peace Agreements for Cambodia, with two primary objectives: ending decades of civil war that had left millions dead and instilling liberal democracy. Looking back, one of those objectives has been realized, with the country enjoying around 20 years of relative peace, while democracy has never looked more out of reach.
In hindsight, the two goals were always at odds in a country where the major political factions were heavily armed and some were explicitly opposed to democracy. Bringing true democracy probably would have required more conflict, not less, while maintaining the uneasy ceasefire required the international community to look away as the fledgling democracy’s wings were clipped.
The accords also became a defining part of Cambodia’s domestic politics, with pro-democracy opposition figures and civil society groups arguing that they were a continued obligation by the Cambodian government and international community to ensure democracy and human rights. Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party, which has ruled the country for over 40 years, instead saw the agreements as a one-off set of obligations for the 1993 election, which have since been completed and are no longer relevant. Despite attempts by the opposition to drag signatories back in, the international community largely took the latter view.