The 14th September is Peacekeepers Day
Australia has been a party to Peacekeeping operations since their inception in 1947, although generally on a small scale. Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Operations became a focus for Australia and its Defence Forces in the latter quarter of the 20th Century with a number of large scale deployments. This commitment reflected widespread instability in the world, short of or following on from actual conflict.
While most have been under the auspices of the UN, others have been under other arrangements. Peacekeeping Operations have taken Australian personnel to every corner of the globe, where they have distinguished themselves as professional, pragmatic and culturally aware people who are able to rapidly restore confidence, trust and order in traumatised communities.
Australia ended WW 2 as a medium sized power. At war's end it had one of the largest airforces in the world, a substantial Navy and an Army that had proven to be masters of jungle warfare. Australia had developed through necessity a greatly expanded industrial and technological capability. The armed forces were quickly demobilised and Australia returned to a peace-time footing but with much greater confidence in its geopolitical surroundings.
Australia, largely through the drive and passion of its Foreign Affairs Minister Herbert 'Doc' Evatt, played a major role in the formation of the United Nations which was intended to prevent a repeat of the devastating World Wars. As the Cold War and de-colonisation took hold across Australia's sphere of influence, it was perhaps no surprise that Australia quickly found itself enmeshed in the first Peacekeeping operations. On 14th September 1947 Australian peacekeepers deployed to the Dutch East Indies as Indonesian nationalists revolted against their former Colonial masters.
Thus began a history of Australian service in the world's trouble spots, most often under a UN 'Mandate' but also under various other arrangements put in place to either establish, make or keep the peace between warring parties. These early deployments tended to be of small teams of individuals in locations such as Kashmir, the Middle East and Africa (Commonwealth Monitoring Group Rhodesia / Zimbabwe).
Notably, an Australian, Lieutenant General Robert Nimmo was to be the UN’s longest serving and one of its most highly regarded Commanders, heading the United Nations Monitoring & Observer Group India / Pakistan (Kashmir) from 1950 until his death in 1966. When he died the Indians and Pakistanis accorded him a funeral on a scale not previously seen for an Australian military leader. His was a UN record that is unlikely to be broken.
Six other multinational operations have been commanded by Australians:
Lieutenant General John Sanderson was Force Commander with the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, 1992 to 1993
Major General David Ferguson was Force Commander with the Multinational Force and Observers (in the Sinai) from 1994 to 1997
Richard Butler led the UN Special Commission (in Iraq) from 1997 to 1999
Major General Timothy Ford was Chief of Staff with the UN Truce Supervision Organisation from 1998 to 2000
Major General Peter Cosgrove commanded the International Force for East Timor (Interfet) from 1999 to 2000.
Major General Gordon Hill commanded UNTSO 2006-2008
Police personnel have also deployed on Peacekeeping duties, notably to Cyprus in the 1960s and 70s and more recently in SE Asia and the SW Pacific. Civilian personnel from the Electoral Commission, AQIS (Quarantine) Customs and the Red Cross have deployed on many operations to carry out prescribed tasks.
It was not until the late 1980s that Australia began fielding large contingents of troops, commencing in Namibia and then in quick succession Cambodia, Somalia (Operation Restore Hope) and Rwanda, culminating in 1999 with Australia assuming responsibility for a stabilisation mission in East Timor on an unprecedented scale that finally concluded in late 2012. Operations in the SW Pacific (Solomon Islands) concluded in 2013.
© Steve Larkins, updated September 2015
Steve served in the 2nd Australian contingent of UNAMIR II Rwanda