chapter  5
23 Pages

Matters of Life and Death: the Record of Humanitarian Intervention

In Cambodia, a Buddhist prophecy tells of a white elephant in blue armour that will rescue the country from a terrible conflagration.3

After the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the instability that followed, UN forces arrived in Cambodia during 1993 to help the country prepare for democratic elections. Their white Toyota landcruisers and blue UN livery convinced some Cambodians that the prophecy was about to be realised, but this elephant had a very short memory, pulling out as soon as the elections were over. After two decades of war, genocide, invasion and isolation, Cambodia deserved better than this. Four years later, the inevitable coup happened (led by Hun Sen and his party of former communists), followed in 1998 by another round of rigged elections only lightly supervised by foreign observers. Here as elsewhere, the ‘international community’ has been a fickle friend to those who need its help. Heroic deeds, battles against the odds and the occasional quiet success do form part of the story of humanitarian intervention in recent times, but overall the international response to conflict and famine has been tardy, piece-

meal and ineffective. Despite the commitments made in 1945 to nullify the ‘scourge of war’, ‘we the people’ stood and watched as genocide unfolded in Indonesia, Cambodia and Rwanda. We did little to prevent ‘ethnic cleansing’ in former Yugoslavia until it was too late, even though there were UN troops on the ground when 8000 civilians were slaughtered in Srebenica. And 100,000 people have been butchered in the most brutal fashion imaginable in Algeria since 1992, with scarcely a hint of foreign intervention. The life and death of distant strangers never did have much political purchase.