More peacekeepers possible

09/14/2007 04:05:45 PM EDT

The head of a Senate inquiry into Australia’s involvement in
peacekeeping operations says the Australian Defence Force has the
capacity to contribute more troops to the region.

The Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade Standing
Committee, Marise Payne, said the defence force was ”bursting at the
seams” and could afford to step up its peacekeeping role.

The assertion came amid criticism of Australia’s commitment to
peacekeeping at a conference hosted at the Australian War Memorial yesterday.

A University of Queensland peace studies lecturer, Professor Alex
Bellamy, said Australia ranked 67th in the world when it came to
committing troops to UN missions.

But Senator Payne said many of Australia’s current commitments
occured outside the UN framework, such as in Iraq and Solomon
Islands. ”At the same time though, the recruiting process is running
with significantly enhanced support,” the Senator said. ”If you
talk to anyone going through Kapooka at the moment, [the army’s
recruit training centre] it’s bursting at the seams so there’s room
there.” Australia’s former chief military advisor in the Department
of Peacekeeping Operations in the United Nations, Tim Ford, defended
Australia’s current commitment.

He said Australia ranked seventh in the world in terms of troop
contributions to the UN at the time of the East Timor intervention in 1999.

”It’s not unusual for these things to fluctuate,” he said. ”You
also have to look at other commitments that a country might have, and
take into account the size of a country’s forces to begin with.” The
two-day conference at the Australian War Memorial concluded yesterday.

Peacekeepers soldier on

09/14/2007 04:05:42 PM EDT

Long before an Australian peacekeeping operation helped secure East
Timor’s independence from Indonesia, there was a force sent to secure
independence for Indonesia.

The year was 1947 and the Dutch were in the middle of protracted
negotiations with Indonesian republican forces to secure a
post-colonial settlement. In July, the Dutch launched a police action
into republican strongholds in East Java and Australian reserve
officers were sent in September to prevent the situation escalating.

This week marked the 60-year anniversary since that first makeshift,
though ultimately successful, peacekeeping mission. Since then,
Australian peacekeepers have been involved in 30 different missions
and the country has developed a much larger role for itself in the region.

But perhaps the most enduring development over the past 60 years has
been Australia’s relationship with the United Nations, and the recent
willingness to work outside the bounds of the security council to
prevent bloodshed.

Despite its charter and its ideological underpinning, the UN has
always had a problem with implementing effective peacekeeping missions.

Peter Londey is a senior historian at the Australian War Memorial and
one of the authors of the official histories of Australia’s
peacekeeping operations. He said that in 1947, conventional armies
such as the Australian Defence Force saw peacekeeping as a secondary role.

”In a sense, peacekeeping seemed to be a bit of a backwater for a
long period of time,” he said. ”I think the regular army didn’t
realise its importance.

For a long time the regular army was off … fighting in Korea and
Vietnam and so forth, and the majority of people going on to
peacekeeping operations were going as military observers to Indonesia
or Kashmir or the Middle East, most of them were reserve officers.”
But as the idea of peacekeeping slowly edged its way into the public
imagination, larger problems with the UN became obvious.

Commonly criticised as lacking teeth, the experience of Australian
peacekeepers long suggested that there were deeper institutional
failings of the UN when it came to carrying out complex missions.

Following the outbreak of conflict between warring factions in
Cambodia in the early 1990s, the United Nations Transitional
Authority in Cambodia was established to oversee a peace agreement
which was signed in Paris in October 1991.

An Australian Lieutenant-General, John Sanderson, was given command
of the UN’s 16,000-strong force, which was tasked with disarming the
factions and overseeing the nation’s first free elections.

When Sanderson arrived in New York to start planning the operation,
the UN was in disarray.

”The United Nations was completely out of its depth in planning such
a huge operation,” Sanderson said. ”It lacked the staff and the
experience to understand the complexity of the situation.

”When I got to New York, I found there were four missions under way
in planning. There was a Swedish colonel claiming Yugoslavia on his
own, an Argentine major planning Angola, a Fijian major claiming
Somalia and a Malaysian lieutenant- colonel was looking after
Cambodia at the time with no other staff. This deficiency was even
more pronounced on the civilian side.” It was this organisational
malaise which led to a period when international support for the UN
was at its lowest. In November 1992, the UN peacekeeping mission in
Somalia had to formally withdraw and was replaced with peacekeepers
under the leadership of the United States. In 1994, the UN was also
roundly condemned for failing to prevent mass slaughter in Rwanda,
when as many as a million people were killed. Back in Cambodia,
Sanderson oversaw the country’s first free elections, but always rued
the fact that he was unable to properly disarm warring factions.

”It would have been much easier if we could have arrived much
earlier and in strength, but the UN was not up to this,” he said.

The problems for the UN were not just at the top. When Major-General
Tim Ford was appointed chief of staff of the United Nations Truce
Supervision Organisation the body established in Jerusalem in 1948 to
provide peacekeepers for the region he was in for a shock.

He quickly found that the professionalism of soldiers from Australia
cut a sharp contrast to some of the other outfits that contributed troops.

”I found that the standards of training of the 153 military
observers from 22 different countries varied dramatically,” he said.
”I remember that after I had been on UNTSO for a few weeks that I
found it necessary to ban a practice that was overused on some of the
observation posts, of having just a bottle of wine with their dinner.
”I ordered that while on duty, the UN observers could not consume
alcohol. I was accused by several of my officers and some member
states of a lack of cultural sensitivity.” Not surprisingly, a
resurgence of peacekeeping operations in the late 1990s occurred
outside the strict parameters of the UN security council, a
development which gained momentum with the Australian-led
peacekeeping mission in East Timor in 1999.

The Australian Defence Force vice chief, Lieutenant-General Ken
Gillespie, points to the disappointment with UN failures in Somalia,
Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia as the chief reason for this.

”The scale of human tragedy in these countries resulted in the UN
being soundly criticised for failing to provide security for the
local population or a failure to achieve a mandate,” he said.

”Disenfranchisement in the UN process was a factor in Australia’s
decision to form INTERFET outside of the UN bounds.” But the result
of this was that the very nature of peacekeeping changed. Far from
being a symbol of internationalism as was once envisioned by the UN,
the act of peacekeeping became monopolised by nation-states.

Australia has had no small role in this development, having taking
the lead in organising the recent intervention in East Timor and the
Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. There are a range
of operational advantages to these arrangements, as Gillespie points
out. ”Because of the shorter distances involved, a regional
coalition is better placed to respond more rapidly and it removes the
need for protracted security council considerations,” he said.
”Regional countries have a greater stake in the security situation
and therefore are more inclined to provide a stronger focus on
lasting solutions.” It’s a problem of peacekeeping that is all too
familiar for Brigadier Paul Symon, who was appointed as a military
observer to the UN in southern Lebanon in 1997. Facing a resurgent
Hezbollah, he said that observers with little experience of the local
language and culture were virtually ineffectual.

”As far as Hezbollah was concerned, the United Nations was an
element of minor concern,” he said. ”Their knowledge of the
landscape, their knowledge of the local people, their ability to use
the local people to their advantage, meant that in many respects the
UN was an incidental actor in their campaign.” But whether the new
regional arrangements are sustainable over the long term remains to
be seen. As Australia’s military resources are stretched to cover
operations across the globe from Iraq to East Timor, future
peacekeeping missions will depend on domestic popularity of
individual causes and the goodwill of regional partners.

The system is not perfect. But for Peter Londey, it has produced
tangible results. He said the current cooperation and commitment to
peacekeeping was probably the strongest it had been throughout the
past 60 years. ”Peacekeeping, as it has developed, is a set of
compromises that are possible in the real world, and possible to do
given that nations are very reluctant to pass their military forces
over to someone else’s command unless it’s a very close and trusted
ally,” he said. ”From the 1990s in places like Cambodia and East
Timor, we are starting to develop the tools to do something about
conflicts in a cooperative way. ”Operations have become more and
more complex. They’re still not working perfectly, as we saw in East
Timor … but there is a system that is in place now that simply
didn’t exist in 1945.”


ETAN welcomes your financial support. For more info:

John M. Miller Internet:
National Coordinator
East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)
PO Box 21873, Brooklyn, NY 11202-1873 USA
Phone: (718)596-7668 Fax: (718)222-4097
Mobile phone: (917)690-4391 Skype: john.m.miller
Web site:

Send a blank e-mail message to to find out
how to learn more about East Timor on the Internet


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