UNTAG - United Nations Transition Authority - Namibia 1989-90 (Peacekeeping, 14 March 1989 to 9 April 1990)

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About This Campaign

UUNTAG Namibia 1989-90 United Nations Transition Authority Group


Although the UN General Assembly had terminated South Africa's mandate over Namibia in 1966, it was not until 1990 that Namibia was able to officially declare its independence from South Africa. UNTAG was established in Namibia in 1989 to supervise the general election, the withdrawal of South African troops, and refugees returning to the country.

At its peak, UNTAG comprised 8,000 civilian, police and military personnel from 120 countries. Australia committed 592 people, including a contingent of engineers from 17 Construction Squadron, 1 RAAF Officer, 5 Miliary Police and a 3 person Signals Detachment team. They were joined by electoral experts from the Australian electoral commission and a fingerprint expert from the Australian Federal Police.

Along with the British Signals contingent, the Australian engineers were the only troops on the ground when the ceasefire broke down in April 1989. They supported a renegotiated ceasefire by "supervising the withdrawal of SWAPO guerillas from Namibia." (Australian War Memorial)

Australia sent two contingents of over 300 engineers each to assist the Special Representative of the Secretary General, Martti Ahtisaari, in overseeing free and fair elections in Namibia for what was the largest deployment of Australian troops and the first operational deployment since the Vietnam War.

The Australian Component

UN Security Council Resolution 264, adopted in 1969 envisioned a phased withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola and established UNTAG, with the objective of: "the withdrawal of South Africa's illegal administration from Namibia and the transfer of power to the people of Namibia with the assistance of the United Nations

In 1978 the Australian Federal Cabinet approved the commitment of an engineer force of 250 officers and men, a national headquarters and support element of 50.   A force based on the 17 Construction Squadron and HQ based on the Directorate of Engineers was placed on eight weeks' notice

The first characteristic of peacekeeping is that the consent of the disputants must be secured before a force is deployed".  This was elusive and after 10 years, there was skepticism that the deployment would ever occur. The government and army were cautious about the timing of the commitment of funds; significant funding was only released in late 1988, a few months before deployment and even then there was scepticism that the deployment would ever occur.

The disputing parties finally agreed in February 1989 and UNTAG was formally established.  The UN General Assembly did not approve the UNTAG budget until 1 March 1989, and General Gration authorised Operation Picaresque on 3 March 1989 - less than two weeks later the advance party deployed.

The UNTAG mandate commenced less than two weeks after that on 1 April 1989.

Mission and role of UNTAG

UNTAG's mission was to monitor the ceasefire and troop withdrawals, to preserve law and order in Namibia and to supervise elections for the new government. "an extremely complex mission".

UNTAG was the first instance of a large-scale, multidimensional operation where the military element supported the work of other components concerned with border surveillance: monitoring the reduction and removal of the South African military presence; organising the return of Namibian exiles; supervising voter registration and preparing, observing, and certifying the results of national elections.

Role of Australian contingent

The role of the Australian force was broad for an Army engineering unit, requiring the unit to "provide combat and logistic engineer support to UNTAG"; this included the UN civilian and military components. Its role included construction, field engineering and (initially) deployment as infantry. 

There was also the very serious task of clearing mines which have been laid by the various contending forces along the border between Angola and Namibia".

In addition to the military force, a number of other Australians served with UNTAG (including 25 observers from the Australian Electoral Commission).

Prime Minister Hawke said in Parliament that Namibia was a "very large and important commitment" comprising "almost half of the Army's construction engineering capability". He went on to say, "our effort in Namibia will be the largest peacekeeping commitment in which this country has ever participated.

Initial Deployment

As previously mentioned, UNTAG was established in February and the budget was approved in March so on the 1 April when the UN mandate commenced, only some advance parties had been deployed and they had been in country for only a week or two.

During the early hours of 1 April, day 1 of the mandate, a large number of SWAPO (about 1,600), re-entering Namibia from Angola.  SWAPO was the military arm of the independence movement.  I remember it well, I was duty officer that night. 

The SADF responded aggressively with serious clashes between members of SWAPO on one hand and elements of the Namibian police and the South African Defence Forces on the other.   Over the three-week period following the incursion over 250 SWAPO were killed, and about 20 members of the SADF and police forces. The clashes were serious and bloody. The situation was tense and serious.

Remember only some advance parties had deployed.  The UN had 300 troops in the north of the country, of which about 100 were Australians.  A third of the force.

If UNTAG were to play any role in ending the fighting, it was obvious that the Australians would be the key component. General Gration and Defence Minister Kim Beazley authorised the Australian troops to supervise the withdrawal of insurgent forces. It required the Australian Army engineers and British signallers to work as infantry, manning border and internal-assembly points.

At the time, these were the only units which could be redeployed quickly to northern Namibia.

Prior to the deployment, South African authorities threatened to veto the involvement of Australian peacekeeping troops because of doubts about their impartiality and we were clearly not welcome.

The SADF were determined to intimidate the UN forces, and SWAPO casualties occurred in the immediate vicinity of several checkpoints. The South Africans set up in force immediately adjacent to many checkpoints, pointed machine guns at the Australians and demanded that they hand over SWAPO soldiers who had surrendered. SADF aircraft dropped flares at night over the Australians and explosions (possibly mortar rounds) were heard nearby.

The Australian and British soldiers were outnumbered and out-gunned.  The world press was present and in the words of the commander of the British contingent “showed Australian and British soldiers standing up to a bunch of South African bullies".  The fact that the Australian soldiers completed this operation without any casualties was a tribute to the "training standards of the Australian Army and perhaps, a bit of good luck".

Not bad for a bunch of planties, tradies and sigs.

The Mission

Then with the arrival of the main force over the next month or so it was back to the Mission

The UN plan required that all exiled Namibians be given the opportunity to return to their country in time to participate in the electoral process. Over 40,000 Namibians returned from exile. The logistics of managing the returnees was largely delegated to the Australian contingent.

The Australians provided living and working accommodation for the Mission – 7,000 UN civilian and military and often in remote and undeveloped areas.

UNTAG deployed over 350 polling stations; the Australian contingent constructed and provided support (including sanitary facilities) at 120 stations.

The Australian contingent provided security and election monitors during the elections – free and fair and without incident.


Overall, the UNTAG mission assisted Namibia in transitioning to a democratic government after the racial segregation of the apartheid system. It was "one of the major successes of the United Nations and "possibly the most successful UN peacekeeping operation ever fielded"; Almost 20 years later, in a message to the annual session of the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization in February 2008, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that "facilitating this process" constituted "one of the proudest chapters of our Organization's history".

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Secretary-General of the United Nations, wrote of the "remarkable contribution made by the Australian military and electoral personnel", and their "dedication and professionalism had been widely and deservedly praised".


The bulk of this feature (after 'The Australian Componenet) was prepared by Mark Dickson who deployed with the first contingent as a Captain

For further information visit

http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/past/untagFT.htm (www.un.org)

https://www.awm.gov.au/conflict/CN500132/ (www.awm.gov.au)





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