The first peacekeeping operation under the auspice of the United Nations was in 1947 and four Australians were part of that initial mission. Since then, the Australian Defence Force has been involved extensively in peacekeeping and peacemaking operations both under UN sanction or as part of – or leading – other multi-national deployments. We have had peacekeepers in the field with the UN for over 50 years.
Peacekeeping operations aim to restore order and ensure security and stability to a country or region. The role can include: the observation of election processes to ensure democracy prevails, assistance to ex-combatants in the implementation of peace agreements that they may have signed, military observance to ensure that any violation of a ceasefire agreement is brought to the world’s attention, enforcement of sanctions and facilitation of humanitarian assistance.
In a formal sense, UN and multi-national peacekeeping missions are quite distinct from post-war occupation military deployments. United Nations peacekeepers are distinguished by their blue helmets but remain members of their own national armies, under secondment to work under the command of the UN.
International peacekeeping also relies upon contributions from non-military personnel for practical support. For example, until their withdrawal in 2017, Australian Federal Police had been represented in the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus for 53 years!
Since the 1970s, Australia’s contributions to peacekeeping operations have increased in size and scope. For a period in 1993, Australia had over 2,000 peacekeepers in the field, with large contingents in Cambodia and Somalia.
The 1990’s was the busiest decade in international peacekeeping up until that time, which included our navy’s participation in the enforcement of UN-imposed sanctions against Iraq in the Persian Gulf.
In 1999, Australia led a peace enforcement operation which dwarfed all its previous peacekeeping efforts as East Timor achieved independence from Indonesia.
The Portuguese colony of East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. After almost a quarter-century of bloodshed in the territory, the Indonesian government finally allowed the East Timorese to vote on their future. A UN operation was established to organize and conduct the vote, which was held at the end of August 1999 and resulted in an overwhelming vote in favour of independence.
With violence persisting post-election and prior to the installation of the new East Timorese government, Indonesia agreed to the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping force. Australia organized and led the International Force for East Timor; a non-UN force operating in accordance with UN resolutions. “Interfet” began arriving on 12 September 1999. Australia contributed over 5,500 personnel and the force commander – later to become Governor-General of Australia – Major General Peter Cosgrove. Australia was the largest contributor to this peacekeeping mission.
The hand-over of command of military operations from Interfet to the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor was completed on 28 February 2000, although Australia and New Zealand participated in Operation Astute from 2006 at the request of the new government. The last Australian peace-keeping forces left in 2012.
Australian War Memorial
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