LONDON — London. -- By common consent, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, under their leader, Pol Pot, are the most ruthless and genocidally obsessed killers to have stalked the planet since Hitler's Gestapo. Every landowner, every dissident, every Muslim and Buddhist, was hunted down and murdered. The cities were emptied and their inhabitants forced to flee to the countryside. One million people were slaughtered.
Amazingly, it looks as if the world has decided to give these mass murderers another chance. The peace agreement negotiated under the umbrella of the United Nations by the ''Big Five,'' (the U.S., Britain, France, China and the Soviet Union) and due to be signed in Paris next week, does exactly that, trusting that a miracle has been wrought and that, if the Khmer Rouge returns to power, it won't be so bad this time. It is as if the ''Five'' had given Hitler another chance.
To be fair to the negotiators, when they conceived this settlement plan last year, informed opinion considered the anti-Pol Pot government of Cambodia, the Vietnam- ese-installed regime of Hun Sen, stronger and more popular than it now is. And it thought that Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former ruler of the country, would be able to generate enough mass support in his position as chairman of the interim government to keep the Khmer Rouge in its place. Not least, it was assumed that Pol Pot's long-time patron, China, whose quarrel with Vietnam has now diminished, would do its part to keep Pol Pot under wraps.
That optimistic scenario might yet prove correct. When the U.N.-supervised election takes place, the Chinese may keep Pol Pot in Beijing and the Cambodian people might do what the outside world never expects a mass of under-educated peasants to do, make a wise and sensible choice. (They've been doing it in India for 45 years.)
Nevertheless, in this war-ravaged country without proper institutions, it could just as easily go the wrong way. With or without Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge could turn the tables on everyone else.
The U.N. negotiators had no choice, if they were to end an all-consuming war that has been fought without let-up for the best part of 25 years. The ballot box, with all its imperfections, was the only compromise the negotiators could agree on. It was no mean concession for the Chinese, who besides not rating democracy high on the list of virtues, had an enormous political stake in the Khmer Rouge as a vital counter-weight to Vietnamese expansion. And voting conveniently gets the U.S., France and Britain off the hook. For too long, they had allowed the Khmer Rouge to keep the Cambodian seat at the U.N., such was their spleen at Vietnam's 1979 invasion of Cambodia when, to popular acclaim, it unseated Pol Pot.
But pity the nearly impossible situation of the U.N. and its multi-national force of peace-keepers and administrators.
Under the Paris agreement, each faction will be allowed to keep 30 per cent of its men under arms, and who knows what further percentage hidden away in the jungle. If the Khmer Rouge is heavily defeated at the polls and then, thwarted, decides to usurp the new government by force or subversion, what does the U.N. do? Even without Chinese backing, Pol Pot's men have the resources to fight for a long time -- over the years, they've stuffed their coffers with the proceeds of gem mining and logging.
The U.N. and its peace-keeping troops could well get sucked into a debilitating, drawn-out guerrilla insurgency.
If, however, the Khmer Rouge wins, or at least ends up as the largest faction, what does the U.N. do if this totally ruthless organization then moves to eliminate its opponents? Clearly, the U.N. has a responsibility to enforce the rules of fair democratic practice, not just merely count the ballots.
Cambodia, in fact, is likely to be the messiest, most precarious, and potentially most dangerous, situation U.N. peace-keepers have ever confronted.
Nearly everyone in the post-Cold War world claims to want a renaissance of the U.N., with new authority to bring peace to the world's trouble spots. But are we really ready for the responsibility of Cambodia? Where is the public debate?
If Cambodia goes wrong, it could irreparably damage the U.N.'s credibility at this crucial moment of rebirth. One thing Cambodia will teach us is that we can't bring peace to our difficult planet just by shutting our eyes.
B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.