Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:47 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:47 | SYDNEY

Peacekeeping: The fight for recognition

27 November 2012 15:14

Geraldine Doogue is civilian patron of the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial Project. She presents ABC RN's 'Saturday Extra' and ABC1's 'Compass' programs. Part 1 of this series here.

Somewhere, there must be a place in Australia's national story for the work of people like Captain Lindsey Freeman, who worked in East Timor in 2011-12. While she was there co-ordinating the movement of personnel and equipment, she also worked with children at a local orphanage. She would take games, sports equipment and educational material for the kids, working especially closely with the girls. She talked to them about women's rights, a concept they were completely unaware of.

'I went gently,' she says, 'but I told them that they had a right to education. They didn't just have to get married at 16 and have babies. I let them know that the possibilities were wider.'

Somalia, 1993. Soldiers from 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment control the crowd during food distribution to the village of Sahmandeera. Photo by TR Dex, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (Photo ID: MSU/93/0025/33).

Impressively, Freeman has kept in contact with these girls, hoping to organise Australian university places for them. It's above and beyond what Freeman would have imagined as part of her duties when she joined the Army, but highly rewarding.

Australia first went on to the field of peacekeeping during the transition from Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia in 1947 when a group of four Australian soldiers helped comprise the UN Good Offices Commission. Fifty-two years later, in what is probably our best known exercise, even the stuff of a two-part television mini-series starring David Wenham, then Major General Peter Cosgrove led the UN International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) after violence by pro-Indonesian militias killed thousands of East Timorese and threatened all-out chaos.

For such a little-heralded national enterprise, the figures on Australian peacekeeping surprise. Since that first mission in Indonesia, over 66,000 Australians have participated in peacekeeping missions round the world, including in Cambodia, East Timor, the Solomons, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Bougainville and South Sudan.

Some have been flashpoints. Others have been long, ongoing feuds such as the border dispute between Syria and Israel, or Cyprus, where officers from the Australian Federal Police have worked since 1964 to minimise the effects of often deep-rooted conflict between the Greek and Turkish communities.

The lack of public recognition is prompting increasing discontent among peacekeepers. Many of them and their families feel that the bravery of those keeping the peace in difficult conditions has not been sufficiently acknowledged.

Avril Clark is fighting for recognition for her son, Jamie, who died aged 28 while peacekeeping in the Solomon Islands. Jamie Clark was killed on active duty when he fell down a sink-hole in the field. Ms Clark recently told the ABC of her fight to get her son's name on the Australian War Memorial's honour roll. It would be there if he'd died in exactly the same circumstances in battle.

Currently, the names of the 48 peacekeepers who have died serving their country are in a memorial book, kept in a glass cabinet in the Australian War Memorial, a potent symbol of the perceived difference between those who died in battle versus those striving to keep the peace.

The rumble of discontent in the peacekeeping community is not about individual honours necessarily, but a place in the public narrative about heroism and honour. So what lies behind the lack of national acclamation? Perhaps the complex nature of the job provides some of the answer.

Peacekeeping is not alchemy. There are no magic transforming 'bullets' in communities serious enough to warrant deployment. Despite the best hopes of fast turnarounds, it is typically full of the painstaking negotiations and compromises that pock-mark nations rife with conflict, poverty and fear. This can produce a disabling fatalism, not well known in Australia, the idea that 'things will never change'.

Professor David Horner, general editor of the Official History of Peacekeeping in Australia, says this makes potent symbolism along the lines of other ANZAC commitments hard to create. And although Australia is more often a peacekeeper than a belligerent, peacekeeping doesn't seem to stir our emotions or sense of ownership of our young representatives on foreign soil. 

Yet there is much to be proud of, Horner insists. Australians have a strong reputation as good peacekeepers, probably due to the inherent disciplines of our military culture. 'We have a highly skilled force of people who understand the rules of engagement and know what to do in crisis situations. Australian peacekeepers are well paid, and come from a culture without endemic corruption.'

'There's also something about Australian egalitarianism', he says. 'We get in there without thinking too much about hierarchical structures that might prevent things from getting done. We talk to people, become part of a community.'

Peter Cosgrove spoke of the 'great aptitude' Australians have for peacekeeping, of being able to tap into 'this great vein of empathy and compassion.' Cosgove enthralled a Sydney Institute dinner audience several years ago with stories of life-and-death decisions made by low-ranking young officers without any capacity to check with superiors.

These sentiments are mirrored by peacekeepers themselves, who talk about the close ties made with local communities. Corporal Stuart King, an Army Reservist for nine years, worked as a paramedic on a small medical team of Australians and New Zealand soldiers while serving in the Solomon Islands in 2008. In an environment of conflict, he knew that with a red cross on his shirt, he would be welcomed by Islanders, who felt they could trust him. As well as evacuating and giving aid to the wounded, he worked closely with the community on basic hygiene and first aid.

'Because we developed a relationship with them, worked within their culture, what we did will stick. We were always aware of integrating new skills into their way of life.' None of this was articulated as being part of a soldier's skill-set when King joined up. But the experience has quite altered his view of modern soldiering.

Retired General Mike Smith, Director of the Security Sector Advisory & Coordination Division in the UN Support Mission in Libya, echoes this sentiment. 'It can be frustrating for us as soldiers', he says. 'You want to get in there and "fix" things. But it's our job to teach, to mentor, in a way that's meaningful on the ground.'

Smith has been involved in peacekeeping roles for almost forty years, mostly as a military operative but also in civilian roles. 'My first peacekeeping mission was in Kashmir, and it was that old-style peacekeeping – observing the border between two nations, monitoring the ceasefire between India and Pakistan. I witnessed two of the most powerful armies in the world facing off against each other, and understood the plight of the Kashmiri people. They wanted independence from both India and Pakistan but, like many unfortunate people had been caught in a political tussle between larger states.'

By the time Smith served in Cambodia, the nature of peacekeeping had changed irrevocably. Instead of monitoring a peace between two states, Australian peacekeepers now more often go into places where the conflict is between groups within one state. This first applied in Cambodia, in a terrible way. More on that in the final post in this series.