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The Asian Wall Street Journal

Cambodia Caught In Minefield Of U.N. Bureaucracy

By Peter S. Crosby

Wednesday, August 19, 1992

"The U.N. has the mandate, money and authority to do a great deal more than it has to clear mines in Cambodia. What it lacks is the will."

PHNOM PENH - A French colonel, sweat-stained and frustrated, shakes his head as 30 dust-smudged Cambodian deminers push a decrepit truck, complete with bolts for tire patches, up the hill from the site for refugee resettlement. "If they knew our commanders pay them out of their own pockets," the Legionnaire murmurs, "Mon Dieu!"

Paying wages out of personal funds is beyond the call of duty for the senior military officers working with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia. But after a three-month struggle with U.N. indecision and legal myopia, the money budgeted for defining under the Paris peace plan signed In October still was not available. For the officers responsible for commanding UNTAC's defining effort, the choice was to pay up or stop work. They paid.

In fact, 85% of the 600 or so Cambodians trained to demine by UNTAC have yet to work on their mine-littered land. The few on the job, Including the French colonel's crew, work for underfunded charities or nongovernmental organizations.

So 10 months after the signing of the Paris accords, fewer than 25,000 of Cambodia's land mines - very roughly estimated at one to two million - have been removed. The mines delay UNTAC operations and kill 40-50 civilians per month, according to the Red Cross.

'Eternal Sentinels'

The Cambodian mine problem has been known since at least March 1991, when Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights documented the indiscriminate use of these "eternal sentinels" by the four political factions In Cambodia. In December, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees paid $100,000 for a mine survey of Cambodia by Halo Trust, a U.K.-based non-profit charity with experience demining In Afghanistan.

Because the two-month survey plotted mined and "suspected mined" areas very conservatively, by the end of January 1992, the UNHCR knew that targeted land was safe for only about 10% of the 55,000 families who wanted to settle in the north-western provinces along the Thai border. The Halo Trust survey also showed that many roads, bridges and rail beds critical to UNTAC progress were heavily mined. Since then, the situation has hardly changed.

Behrooz Sadry, deputy chief of UNTAC, admits that "very, very, very little" of the tactical mines have been removed. Until June, the Halo Trust was the only operation employing UNTAC-trained deminers. It supervised two 30-man teams, each clearing one to two hectares a month.

Everyone at the U.N. has an excuse for this sorry performance: No mandate. No money. No authority. In fact, the U.N. has the mandate, money and authority to do a great deal more than it has. What it lacks is the will.

"It's a pity demining has taken so long," says UNTAC chief Yasushi Akashi. "It was never the intention of UNTAC as such to engage in demining. It was never in the mandate." The Cambodian Peace Agreement, however, specifically authorizes the UNTAC military mission to assist "with clearing mines and undertaking training programs in mine clearance and a mine-awareness program among the Cambodian people."

Mr. Sadry, Mr. Akashi's deputy, says, "The defining mandate is there." He points out that Annex 4 of the Paris agreement states that "it is imperative that appropriate border crossing points and routes be designated and cleared of mines and other hazards." In fact, In March a Thai engineering battalion cleared mines while repairing Route 5, Cambodia's primary road into Thailand, and the most important route for repatriation. Although Mr. Akashi calls this "rather an exception," the Thai defining has set a precedent of troops of a member state clearing mines under U.N. authority. Certainly enough of a mandate exists for UNTAC to have cleared at least the most important roads and resettlement areas.

"We included the money for it," says Mr. Sandry, who helped to put together UNTAC's budget. "It was just the determination of how you actually do it."

The problem is that the $5.4 million UNTAC budget for defining supplies, services and operating costs lists everything from oil filters and furniture-but it neglects to mention wages salaries or payment for services of outside contractors. The budget provides $1.2 million to pay the operating costs of 512 team months of defining, but nowhere does it specify paying people. Therefore, this $1.2 million has been almost impossible to tap. "In our traditional way of doing things, we simply didn't have a way of including wages for people who are not U.N. employees," Mr. Sandry explains. "We explained to the Advisory Committee for Administrative and Budgetary Questions what the purpose was, and we now have the authority to do it." Still, no one at UNTAC dares to release the funds as wages.

The U.N. has held up other funds donated for demining. The U.S. Office for Disaster Assistance offered $1 million in March to get the U.N. moving, but after months of arguments between the State Department and the U.N. over whether the funds counted as "assessed U.N. contributions," the U.S. used the money to hire a private Thai defining contractor instead.

Generals in Cambodia's Ministry of Defense also held up demining. Earlier this year, they demanded that UNTAC pay $1,100 per month salary, and 10 years salary as compensation in case of death, for their soldier-deminers. The generals argued that U.N. interpreters and drivers earned S150-$200 per month and demining was much more dangerous. Curiously, the wages would not be paid to deminers directly, but to the Finance Branch of the Ministry of Defense. Although the Defense Ministry seems to have given up this grab for easy money, at least one military unit out of Battambang, the most heavily mined province, is still insisting on this rate of pay.

In short, money has been available for demining; the problem is the fear of liability and the lack of authority or courage to overcome it. UNTAC's legal advisor In Phnom Penh, Visha Krishnadasan, puts the paralysis into perspective: "All the world over, the basic function of the U.N. Is to protect itself from liability."

For example, another U.S. State Department contribution, $200,000 given to the UNHCR In April for demining, was unspent for months. Then in late July, Handicap International, a nongovernmental organization known for making prosthetics, was persuaded to take the money to administer an UNTAC-supervised deminmg program for a 90-day trial. It therefore became the employer of record and took on the responsibility of paying claims for injuries or death to deminers or their families. Says HI's executive director, Dr. Richard J. Baptist: "What we are contributing is our willingness to he 100% liable."

In the meantime, UNTAC has been waiting for the Cambodian Mine Action Center, a Cambodian government institution established "in partnership" with UNTAC. Conceived In December as a continuing humanitarian aid and coordination center, CMAC represents the first time the U.N. has assumed a voting position in a governiog body of an independent nation. UNTAC has political and supervisory control of CMAC, but the CMAC will take care of any claims for injuries or death.

While the CMAC struggles to get itself up and running, a backlog of funds for demining builds up. The U.S. State Department, tired of waiting for CMAC to get going, recently placed ads In the Bangkok Post for private bids to reconstruct and demine more than 150 kilometers of roads critical to repatriation. The European Community also came through with $1.4 million for Halo Trust and Handicap International operations.

Until CMAC starts to function, UNTAC will continue to rely on private groups to clear what mines they can. And the basic debate about paying the Cambodian workers with UNTAC funds remains unresolved - as does the morass that created it.

Mr. Sandry insists, "We cannot make a cash contribution to CMAC because it is not a U.N. body." Mr. Krishnadasan says just the opposite: "CMAC can receive money from anyone, including UNTAC." The bureaucratic muddle of who pays whom, how much, for what drags on; because of it, the deminers are not working. The mines are.

'Problem of Bureaucracy'

"It is a problem of the U.N. bureaucracy," says French Brig. Gen. Michel Loridon, who was recently removed as UNTAC's Deputy Force Commander. "When the U.N. has no money they cannot do anything. When they have money, then they take too much time to organize how to spend it."

Information gathering and decision making has naturally been difficult between the U.N. headquarters in New York and the far-flung UNTAC deployment in Cambodia. But it is the lack of communications and action within the mission, and the resulting tension between UNTAC politicians and soldiers, that has thwarted effective action.

UNTAC clearly has enough authority; to succeed at demining, however, it needs to use it.


Mr. Crosby is a free-lance writer and photographer based in Tokyo.