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Australia and UN peacekeeping: Time for a reset

Australia and UN peacekeeping: Time for a reset

The UN is the go-to organisation for virtually every forgotten international crisis.

While the West has struggled on in Afghanistan and Iraq, the UN and its peacekeeping missions have been deployed to just about everywhere else: Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Darfur, Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire, Timor-Leste, Haiti, and Burundi. In many of these cases the UN has performed well.

At a recent summit on strengthening international peacekeeping chaired by US Vice President Joe Biden, a host of countries made pledges to materially support peacekeeping (albeit informally). Australia was a surprisingly notable absentee from the list.

Since the early 2000s, Australia has decreased its support to UN peacekeeping operations from a high of 1500 personnel to its current level of only 44. While committing its forces to a few critical campaigns alongside its US and NATO allies, like many Western countries, Australia has resorted to chequebook peacekeeping – paying its dues rather than deploying personnel or materiel. Yet it is often through peacekeeping operations that stability is restored and future international crises are averted. [fold]

Australia boasts a proud history in peace operations. Australians became some of the first UN military peacekeepers in the world when they deployed to Indonesia in 1947. Since then over 65,000 Australian military and police have served with distinction around the globe, from RAMSI in the Solomon Islands to Operation Solace in Somalia to UNTAC in Cambodia to INTERFET and UNTAET in Timor Leste. Australia has also fielded an impressive array of competent peace-operations force commanders: General Peter Cosgrove, Lt General John Sanderson, Major General Tim Ford, Major General Ian Gordon, Major General Michael Smith, and Major General David Ferguson.

Yet despite Australia's proud history, at the present moment neither the Government nor the ADF has an appetite for UN operations. The arguments raised against such deployments are numerous. But how realistic are the myths associated with peacekeeping?

The first myth is that UN peacekeeping is ineffective. Various studies have concluded that this is clearly not the case. Peacekeeping is generally an effective tool of the international system, in spite of its misuse and neglect. Clearly, there are faults, but these faults are too frequently conflated in the minds of UN opponents. Australia should be at the forefront of efforts to address the maladies of peacekeeping rather than in the background rebuking its many defects. 

The second myth is that to deploy on a UN mission is a step down for the military. The challenges inherent to modern peacekeeping (or what might now be termed stabilisation operations) offer a perfect opportunity for ADF personnel to develop their skills, because in many respects, peacekeeping is a step up from war fighting. Junior officers should be encouraged and credited for participating in UN missions. Surely it is better for these officers to gain overseas experience in a multinational force than undertaking staff duties in a Division HQ that will never deploy? The ADF needs to look at dispelling the cultural predilection for viewing a UN deployment as a holiday.

The third myth is that in such missions Australia would need to relinquish command and control of its personnel to a potentially second-rate force commander. Clearly, Australian commanders prefer to retain as much national command and control over their forces as possible. They presume that UN command and control structures do not allow for this preference. Yet in truth national contingent commanders retain a high degree of control over deployed peacekeepers just as they do in other coalition operations. If Australians were to be deployed to a UN mission, they would remain under Australian command.

Australia needs to restart the conversation on peacekeeping, and the 2015 Defence White Paper is an appropriate starting point. After Afghanistan, the ADF must consider peacekeeping as one of best options for overseas deployment and experience. Here are a few modest recommendations to guide initial thinking:

  • The ADF should expect to deploy peacekeepers and it should therefore train and plan accordingly.
  • Every five years the ADF should expect to prepare a sizable contingent of varying capability for deployment to a UN mission for a limited duration.
  • Peacekeeping should be fully integrated into the training-deployment cycle.
  • Opportunities should be sought to enhance cooperation on peacekeeper training and deployments, especially with regional partners.

Australian military personnel have proven themselves expert peacekeepers, but a proud reputation forged in the Middle East, Cambodia and Timor-Leste is in danger of being forgotten. Australia should position itself once again as a leader in peacekeeping in order to serve its own interests and international peace and security.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.

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