Skip to main content

Australians amongst the world’s first UN Peacekeepers

Friday 13 September, 2019

Australian Peacekeepers’ and Peacemakers’ Day, commemorated annually on September 14, was established to honour Australian military, police and civilian personnel who have served as part of United Nations and other multilateral peace and security operations to which Australia has contributed.

Australians first deployed in a peacekeeping role in 1947 and has continued to be involved in more than 70 separate missions.  These peacekeeping commitments have generally comprised small numbers of high-level and technical support troops including signallers, engineers, medical personnel, military observers and police.

Australian senior military officers have been deployed as Force Commanders on numerous occasions including then Major General Peter Cosgrove (Interfet – East Timor), Lieutenant General John Sanderson (Cambodia), Major General Tim Ford (UN Headquarters, New York), Major General Ian Gordon (Middle East), Major General Michael Smith (UNTAET-East Timor), and Major General David Ferguson (MFO – Sinai), and more recently Major General Cheryl Pearce (Cyprus). Of particular note is the service of then Major General R H Nimmo who was appointed as Chief Military Observer of the UN mission in Kashmir (UNMOGIP) in October 1950 serving until his death on 4 January 1966; a total of 15 years and the longest command in UN peacekeeping history.

In our own region we have played a significant role in peacekeeping missions, including those undertaken in Solomon Islands (RAMSI 2000-13), Timor-Leste (1999 – 2013) and Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (1994 & 1997-2003).



Our first peacekeeping contribution was in 1947 when four Australians were deployed to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) as part of the United Nations Good Offices Commission (UNGOC), the world’s first United Nations peacekeeping mission. This small Australian contingent consisted of two Army, one Navy and one Air Force personnel deployed as military observers. A total of 45 Australians subsequently served as part of this mission over the following four years.

In the early years, Australia’s peacekeepers were generally deployed as unarmed military observers. Their role was to promote peace indirectly by ensuring that neither side in a conflict violated a ceasefire agreement, or committed atrocities without the United Nations and the world community hearing about them.  In Indonesia, for example, the information gathered by UN military observers assisted Indonesian republicans to achieve their independence from the Dutch.

In Korea in 1950, the United Nation’s peacekeeping operation made the judgement that North Korea had invaded the south. This was based, in part, on a report by Australian military observers serving with the UN Commission in Korea at the time.

Between 1950 and 1989 Australia’s peacekeeping commitments were numerous, yet small. As in Indonesia, the majority of these were as military observers helping to foster stability, but not necessarily involved in ending conflict. For example, Australian observers were involved in the UN operation in Kashmir from 1950 to 1985, but this UN operation still continues today with signs of a resolution to the conflict still remote.

In the 1970s, the scale of Australia’s peacekeeping operations increased. In Zimbabwe, for example, the Australian Government, under the leadership of then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, brokered a number of measures to support Zimbabwe’s transition to independence. This included contributing a contingent of 152 Australian military personnel to the Commonwealth Ceasefire Monitoring Force. In addition, an eight-person national observer group was also sent, and an Australian official was appointed to the Commonwealth Observer Group for the Zimbawbe elections, which ultimately lead to the country’s independence in 1980.

In the 1980s, RAAF helicopters were deployed to the Sinai, as Egypt and Israel ended three decades of hostilities there.  More recently, Australian observers took part in a UN operation monitoring the ceasefire between Iran-Iraq, when the war ended there in 1988.

In 1989, a sizeable force of Australian military engineers was deployed to Namibia as part of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) 1989–90). Here two Australian contingents of over 300 each, helped ensure Namibia’s efforts to conduct free and fair elections as the country transitioned away from the apartheid system. It was the largest deployment of Australian troops since the Vietnam War, and received praise at the highest level of the United Nations by then Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. In a letter to Gareth Evans (Australia’s Foreign Minister at the time) he wrote of the “remarkable contribution made by the Australian military and electoral personnel whose dedication and professionalism had been widely and deservedly praised”. There were 19 UN personnel killed in Namibia, mercifully none of these losses were from the Australian contingents.

During the 1990s Australia made further contributions to peacekeeping operations undertaken in various countries throughout the world, including involvement of the Royal Australian Navy with the enforcement of UN-imposed sanctions against Iraq, both before and after the Gulf War.  In 1993, Australia had over 2000 peacekeepers in the field, with large contingents in Cambodia and Somalia as well as missions to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and Bougainville.

Australia is widely acknowledged as having been instrumental in the diplomacy that led to the Cambodian Peace Settlement, having made a major contribution to the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia which was still suffering the effects of the genocidal Pol Pot regime of the 1970s.

In Somalia, a battalion-level Australian contingent was successful in allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid in the Baidoa area.  In Rwanda, in addition to contributing members to the UN force, the Australian contingent centred on provision of medical staff to treat many of those severely injured in the genocidal civil violence that erupted there.

Missions in Iraq saw Australians involved in weapons and manufacturing facilities inspections, as well as policing UN sanctions imposed.

In Bougainville, Australian peacekeepers helped facilitate the settlement between the Papua New Guinea government and the separatist Bougainville Revolutionary Army, a decade long conflict, which ran from 1988 to 1998.

The largest peacekeeping commitment Australia has made since World War Two was in 1999 to the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET). Around 6,000 Australian military and police personnel were deployed to assist East Timor’s (now Timor-Leste) emergence as an independent nation.

The deployment to Solomon Islands between 2003 and 2013 as part of Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was also significant with a total of 7,270 Australian personnel rotated throughout the ten-year period of this mission. The Australian led component, known as Operation Anode included deployment of eight Army Reserve Company groups, accounting for more than 800 part-time soldiers. The deployment of these Defence Force personnel, at the invitation of the Solomon Islands Government, aims to ensure the ongoing success of RAMSI.

Thousands of Australian military personnel have been deployed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in warfighting roles, while smaller scale commitments to Commonwealth missions to Africa in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Darfur, Zimbabwe and Uganda have also been undertaken.

We continue to deploy personnel to the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai (Egypt/Israel) and to international stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan.  More than 2400 personnel have been involved in the international campaigns against terrorism, where Australian forces demonstrate outstanding capabilities in these often dangerous and hostile foreign environments.

Any overview of Australian Peacekeeping would be incomplete without mention of the role the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has played. Since 1964, the AFP has served in Cyprus where the conflict between Turkish and Greek communities continues to occur. The role of the police there is to help minimise the effect of this conflict and to find ways to actively build bridges between the two communities. More recently, police officers from Australia have served in Cambodia, Haiti, Mozambique, Bougainville and Timor-Leste.



According to the Australian Peacekeeper & Peacemaker Veterans Association (APPVA) there have been nearly 90,000 Australians, primarily Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police, who have deployed in peacekeeping roles.

The APPVA, established in October 1997, ‘recognises, fosters and supports Australian servicemen and women who have been involved in these operations with almost 1,600 members across Australia, as well as some who reside overseas.  This includes those who have served in warlike (peacemaking) operations and / or non-warlike operations such as Peacekeeping, United Nations Contingents, Military Observers, Truce Supervision, Emergency Forces, Special Commissions, Humanitarian Aid, Monitoring Forces, De-mining Teams and Training Teams – and any other Australian Defence Force (ADF), New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), or Australian Federal (AFP) & State Police Operations, including Peacetime Service.   To date 73 ADF and Police personnel have died while on these operations.[1]



The national Australian Peacekeeping Memorial commemorates our nation’s contributions to peacekeeping past, present and future.  The memorial, built on Anzac Parade, Canberra, appropriately “honours the sacrifice of Australian Peacekeepers in the service of international peace and security, and recognise the courage and professionalism of Australian Peacekeepers in the face of the particular challenges of their operations.”  The memorial was inaugurated on 14 September, 2017, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the first Australian peacekeepers to leave home to participate in the world’s first peacekeeping mission to Dutch East Indies in 1947.

Australian Peacekeeping Memorial, Canberra (Source: Monument Australia)






Michael Sheldrick “Defence White Paper: Why Australia needs to invest in foreign aid as well as rockets” – Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 26, 2016

WordPress Lightbox Plugin