LAST month's talks between Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia and Chester Bowles, Johnson's special envoy, produced enough noise to conceal their lack of substance. Bowles and Sihanouk agreed to ask the Southeast Asian International Control Commission to save Cambodia from drowning in the overflow of the Vietnam war. As a diplomatic exercise, the joint appeal may have been something of a success. But as a means of protecting Cambodia, the ICC would prove hopelessly inadequate.
The Control Commission's task -- sealing up Cambodia's border with Vietnam--is mammoth by any standards. The Americans have been complaining for four years that Viet Cong and North Vietnamese use Cambodia as a sanctuary, darting out to strike and then skipping back across the border to safety.
One source of allied discontent is plain. The winding 400-mile boundary is, from a Communist point of view, delightfully permeable. At its northern end, opposite Vietnam's central highlands, it runs through deep tropical jungle, uninhabited and immune to air observation. Its southern reaches, along the Mekong River, are under five feet of water during the monsoons.
A large, effective police force might have a chance, but the International Control Commission, spastic child of the Geneva Conference of 1954, is neither large nor effective, nor a police force; and it is unlikely to be any of these in the near future.
For a start the ICC is powerless without the cooperation of the antagonists. Talk of the ICC "policing" the border is largely wishful thinking. Lacking any sort of military backing, about all the team can do is collect information on violations, write out reports, and hope the U.S. and the V.C. will listen.
IF the ICC were good at collecting information, this wouldn't be so bad. Unfortunately, it has proved a singularly inept detective.
The Commission was designed not to keep tabs on a guerrilla war but to supervise the implementation of the Geneva accords in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. This it did with reasonable success in the first two years after its creation, mainly monitoring the withdrawal of regular French and Viet Minh troops. In the years since, however, it has proved disastrously limited in size, mobility and deployment.
Commission members number in the tens--instead of the thousands most observers feel the situation requires. They are organized into two sorts of units: "fixed" teams which are now largely useless in a shadowy guerrilla war: and all-important "mobile" teams, which hardly deserve the label. Not even land transport is abundant. Nonpayment by Geneva conference members, who supposedly share the costs of the ICC has placed the operating expenses on the shoulders of the Poles, Canadians, and Indians. Naturally, they have not inclined toward extravagance.
Structural defects, however have proved far more crippling than poor logistics and organization. Unlike similar UN observation teams elsewhere, the ICC has never managed to stay aloof from the conflicts it superintends. Its tripartite composition--each team consists of a Communist Pole, Western Canadian, and neutral Indian--has made the ICC as much a forum for propagandizing as an objective mediator.
The key problem is the Geneva accord stipulations on unanimity. The accord refers vaguely to the ICC's power of making "recommendations" by a simple majority vote--two of its three members. But "on questions concerning violations or threats of violation" of the armistice, the Commission must be unanimous. In general, the Commission has decided "procedural" matters by majority, but required unanimity on all investigatory issues.
The effect has been to give the Poles a virtual veto on all ICC actions of consequence. The Commission cannot follow up a complaint without Polish approval, and once it gets into the field, a Pole dissent can sabotage its efforts.
A looser interpretation of the accords might avoid part of this mess, but to the chagrin of the Americans, the Indians, as ICC chairmen, have applied the unanimity provisions to the hilt. Until last week there was some doubt that the ICC would agree to the Cambodian and American plan entrusting it with surveillance of Cambodia's border. The Indians felt approval had to be unanimous and to secure Polish support, engineered a compromise which drastically limits the ICC role to investigating "specific complaints" after the fact.
In large measure, the ICC failure reflects the broader impotence of the Geneva Conference itself. UN observation teams may not be able to force compliance, but the UN at least provides a standing forum which maximizes the impact of their reports and can react with powerful resolutions during crises. In the isolated cases when the ICC gets off a report, the Conference provides no such amplifier.
The problem, of course, is that most of the time the Geneva Conference does not exist. ICC reports are dutifully received and filed in Geneva, but they cannot be discussed or acted upon unless the Conference is in session. It has not been since 1962, and since co-chairman Russia must support any call for a new gathering, it is not likely to be in the foreseeable future.
Russian opposition to re-convening the Conference cancels any hope of making the ICC more effective. In announcing the ICC decision to resume border investigation, the Indians rightly refused to act on the joint Cambodian-American suggestion that the ICC be enlarged and strengthened. Since the Accords guarantee the Commission all "modern means of transport" the ICC might have accepted the helicopters the U.S. offered. But as far as increasing the numbers or operating methods of ICC teams is concerned, any final decision must come from Geneva.
There is still considerable irony in one 1958 episode in which the North Vietnamese and Poles opposed the dissolution of the Laotian ICC. The ICC claimed its job was finished, but the Communists disagreed. They were afraid a more effective supervisory force--namely the new Laotian government--would replace it.