This week will see a number of activities commemorating the contributions of more than 80,000 Australians who have served as peacekeepers over the last 70 years. The centrepiece of the week will be a commemorative dedication service at the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial on 14 September 2017.
The Australian Peacekeeping Memorial Project committee has worked for more than a decade to enable the building of a memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra, with the winning design announced on 19 December 2008. The Australian Government provided seed funding of $200,000 in 2006 but funding has also come from the public and a wide range of organisations. Throughout most of this period, successive governments have ensured that donations to the project have had tax deductible gift recipient status. Recently, the Government of Timor-Leste donated $100,000 towards the cost of the memorial.
Australia’s first peacekeeping operation took place in 1947 when military observers were sent to Indonesia under the banner of the United Nations (UN)—the United Nations Good Offices Committee Indonesia (UNGOC)—to monitor the ceasefire between Dutch colonial and Indonesian independence forces. Since then, Australian military, police and some civilians have served on more than 50 peacekeeping missions involving, for example:
observing truces (and fighting) in locations such as Korea, the Sinai, Lebanon, the Balkans, Kashmir and Bougainville
providing humanitarian aid in remote areas such as the Congo and West New Guinea
establishing law and order in trouble spots such as Cyprus and the Thai-Cambodian border
observing elections and referendums in places such as West Sahara and East Timor and
de-mining in countries such as Afghanistan and Cambodia.
Australian police personnel have served in various peacekeeping missions, including Cyprus, Cambodia, Haiti, Mozambique, Bougainville and Timor. A complete list of the peacekeeping missions in which Australia has been involved can be found on the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial Project website.
Australians have commanded six multinational operations. The first multinational peacekeeping mission commanded by an Australian was the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP). Robert Nimmo, a former army officer who was appointed as an Honorary Lieutenant-General in 1954, led UNMOGIP from 1950 until his death in 1966. His is the longest-ever command of a UN operation. Australians have since commanded several other peacekeeping missions in the Middle East, Asia and Pacific regions, including the International Force East Timor which was led by the then Major General Peter Cosgrove (now the Governor-General of Australia).
The first operation with more than 500 Australians was the Australian-commanded UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) during 1992–93. The first with more than 1,000 Australians was the Unified Task Force in Somalia (UNOSOM) in 1993. By far the largest commitment to date has been the Australian-commanded International Force East Timor (INTERFET) in 1999–2000, with more than 5,000 personnel deployed.
Peacekeeping operations can be of widely varying length. The Australian Federal Police, for example, recently ended a 53-year association with peacekeeping operations in Cyprus, and Australia has been involved in the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) in the Middle East since 1956. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) currently has 12 personnel attached to UNTSO under Operation Paladin. Similarly, there are 25 ADF personnel in the non-UN Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai—a commitment which began in 1982.
‘Peacekeeping’ can be a misnomer insofar as operations can be keeping the peace in relatively stable conditions or they can be enforcing peace in war zones or areas in which violence could easily flare up again. There may be cultural difficulties to deal with between peacekeepers and locals, and between different nationalities of peacekeepers. There has been frustration, including within the ranks of peacekeepers, at the perceived impotence of some operations. The failure or inability to protect civilians in a number of locations, such as Rwanda and Srebrenica in Bosnia, has been widely condemned. In response to an increasing demand for the deployment of peacekeepers to ‘remote and often volatile environments’, in 2000 the United Nations commenced a process of analysis and reform to evaluate and improve its peacekeeping operations.
In common with other forms of military and police service, peacekeepers can suffer from long-term mental health issues associated with their service. Cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been reported among former peacekeepers. Even some ‘non-warlike’ operations have imposed uncommon strains on personnel. Indeed, two of the deployments to the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), including the period spanning the Kibeho massacre on 22 April 1995, have since been reclassified as ‘warlike’. Members of these deployments have been issued with the Australian Active Service Medal, and are eligible for veterans’ entitlements.
On 6 March 2013 the Council of the Australian War Memorial agreed to include on the Roll of Honour all the names of ADF personnel killed in non-warlike service since 1947 (including peacekeeping operations). These people had previously only been included in the Remembrance Book. According to the Australian War Memorial’s peacekeeping operations website, 14 Australians have died in peacekeeping operations.
The six-volume Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations is currently being written and is jointly supported by the Australian War Memorial, the Australian National University and the ADF.