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Peacekeeping 1947 - present day

Note on terminology:
Peace support operations are often divided into "peacekeeping" (lightly armed) and "peace enforcement" (heavily armed), and sometimes into other categories as well. In this section, "peacekeeping" and "peacekeeping operation" are used as blanket terms to cover all impartial, multinational, military-based interventions into areas of conflict.


A proud record

Australia has had peacekeepers in the field with the United Nations since 1947. In Indonesia in 1947, Australians were part of the very first group of UN military observers anywhere in the world, and were, in fact, the first into the field.

Six multinational operations have been commanded by Australians:

  1. Lieutenant General Robert Nimmo was Chief Military Observer in Kashmir with the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan, from 1950 to 1966 
  2. Lieutenant General John Sanderson was Force Commander with the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, 1992 to 1993

  3. Major General David Ferguson was Force Commander with the Multinational Force and Observers (in the Sinai) from 1994 to 1997

  4. Richard Butler led the UN Special Commission (in Iraq) from 1997 to 1999

  5. Major General Timothy Ford was Chief of Staff with the UN Truce Supervision Organisation from 1998 to 2000

  6. Major General Peter Cosgrove commanded the International Force East Timor (Interfet) from 1999 to 2000 

Military observers

In the early years, Australia's peacekeepers were generally unarmed military observers, promoting peace indirectly by ensuring that neither side in a conflict could violate a ceasefire or commit atrocities without the United Nations and the world community knowing about it. Today the media can fill a similar role, but military observers with a peacekeeping operation are more impartial and can use their military training to assess a situation more accurately.

In Korea in 1950, the UN's judgement that North Korea had invaded the south was based, in part, on a report by Australian military observers serving with the UN Commission on Korea.

Korea, June 1950. Members of the United Nations Commission on Korea (UNCOK) passing native ox carts on the road while on tour of the 38th Parallel just prior to war breaking out.

Observer missions help create stability, but do not necessarily help end the conflicts which they are observing. Australian observers took part in a UN operation in Kashmir from 1950 to 1985. The operation continues today, without a resolution of the conflict in sight. Similarly, Australian observers have served with UN operations in the Middle East since 1956.

More recently, when the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988, Australian observers took part in a UN operation monitoring the ceasefire.

Larger operations

Since the 1970s, Australia's contributions to peacekeeping operations have increased in size and scope. In that decade, and again in the 1980s, RAAF helicopters operated in the Sinai, as Egypt and Israel ended three decades of hostilities. At the end of the 1970s, an Australian infantry force of 150 soldiers took part in a British Commonwealth operation as Zimbabwe won its independence. A decade later, an even larger contingent, composed largely of engineers, assisted a UN operation with a similar role in Namibia.

Peacekeeping in the 1990s

With the end of the Cold War, the 1990s proved to be the busiest decade in the history of multinational peacekeeping. For the first time, RAN ships took part in a peacekeeping operation, enforcing UN-imposed sanctions against Iraq both before and after the Gulf War.

For a period in 1993, Australia had over 2,000 peacekeepers in the field, with large contingents in Cambodia and Somalia.

A year later, Australians were in Rwanda, another country to fall victim to genocidal civil violence. This time, the Australian contingent centred on medical staff who were able to treat many of the local people, in addition to members of the UN force.

After this there was a lull in Australian peacekeeping, though long-running operations continued in the Middle East and Cyprus and Australians were still involved with Iraq, inspecting weapons-manufacturing facilities and policing sanctions.

Since 1997, however, Australians have also served on Bougainville, where a settlement at last appears possible in the long-running conflict between the Papua New Guinea government and the separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

Then in 1999, Australia led a peace enforcement operation which dwarfed all its previous peacekeeping efforts, as East Timor achieved independence from Indonesia.

East Timor

A UN operation - the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) - 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.

Tragically, once the result had been announced, pro-Indonesian militias, sometimes with the support of elements of the Indonesian security forces, launched a campaign of violence, looting and arson throughout the entire territory.


Dili, East Timor, 13 November 1999. A destroyed building in the International Force East Timor (Interfet) compound. Note the blood stains on the footpath in front of the building

Australia, which had contributed police to UNAMET, organized and led the International Force East Timor (Interfet), a non-UN force operating in accordance with UN resolutions. Interfet, with the role of restoring peace and security, protecting and supporting UNAMET, and facilitating humanitarian assistance operations, began arriving on 12 September 1999. Australia contributed over 5,500 personnel and the force commander, Major General Peter Cosgrove. 

With the withdrawal of the Indonesian armed forces, police and administrative officials from East Timor, UNAMET re-established its headquarters in Dili on 28 September. The hand-over of command of military operations from Interfet to UNTAET was completed on 28 February 2000. Australia has continued to support the UN peacekeeping operation with between 1,500 and 2,000 personnel, as well as landing craft and Blackhawk helicopters. Australia remains the largest contributor of personnel to the peacekeeping mission.


Suai, East Timor, 16 November 1999. Gunner (Gnr) Alan Paul (left) of the 108th Battery, Field Regiment, part of the International Force East Timor (Interfet), talking to a fellow soldier as they begin a patrol of an area between Suai and Matai.

Some Australians have died on peacekeeping operations.

Source: (accessed 19 July 2019)