On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947.
Since 1947, tens of thousands of Australians have served as members of a peacekeeping force and 16 have lost their lives. This day is a time for us to recognise and remember their service and sacrifice.
Significance of the date
At the end of World War II, conflict arose in the Netherlands East Indies. The Netherlands colonial government and its military forces on one hand and the Indonesian republicans on the other.
On 20 July 1947, the Netherlands launched Operatie Product. This strong offensive aimed to remove Republican troops from parts of Sumatra and East and West Java.
Many countries, including Australia, reacted negatively to the Netherlands government's invasion of Republican territory. On 1 August, the United Nations (UN) called for a cease-fire between Netherlands and Republican forces to allow for mediation.
A consular commission recommended on 4 August that its governments send personnel to observe the cease-fire order. It's been described as the start of UN peacekeeping. In response, Australia sent 4 observers from each branch of defence, who arrived in Java on 13 September.
On 14 September, the Australians became the world's first peacekeepers to be deployed into the field. Other nations participating in the mission included Belgium, Britain, China, France and the United States. The mission helped Indonesia to gain independence from the Netherlands and marked the start of UN peacekeeping.
Learn more about Australian peacekeepers in Indonesia from 1947 to 1951.
Operations since 1947
Since 1947, Australian service personnel have continued to support countries around the world. Their tasks have included:
- clearing and training others to clear landmines
- facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid
- helping war-torn communities
- maintaining peace during elections
- observing ceasefires and standing between hostile armies.
To date, Australians have contributed to over 70 international peacekeeping operations in more than 60 countries. Many are conducted under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), and some are carried out by regional or other bodies.
Learn more about some of the operations that have involved Australia.
Australians in peacekeeping
Australia has had peacekeepers in the field ever since its first deployment in 1947.
Tens of thousands of Australians have served in peacekeeping roles. Tragically, 16 Australians have died while serving on these operations, including military and police personnel.
Peacekeeping operations vary enormously, taking Australians to places as remote as Western Sahara and the Pacific Islands. Some missions, such as that to the Congo in 1960, have involved a handful of personnel. Others have been large undertakings involving all 3 branches of defence, civilians, and state and federal police officers. Some missions have only included unarmed state or federal police officers.
Many veterans, police and civilians are proud to have served on peacekeeping deployments. But some have witnessed human suffering and violence. It's one reason why the service experience can exact a personal toll on them and their families.
While relatively few Australians have lost their lives on peacekeeping operations, it's not a measure of the risks that peacekeepers face. It's instead a testament to their skill and professionalism and sometimes to good fortune.
Being deployed to serve your country is a very hard and proud thing to do whether it is in a conflict situation or not. Peacekeepers are there to help communities develop and become self-sufficient. Peacekeeping should be recognised as the same as all military service who have been deployed overseas.
[Trent Prince, 2019, quoted in Control: Stories of Australian Peacekeeping and Humanitarian Operations]
Civilian police involvement
Australian civil police first joined peacekeeping operations in May 1964, when 40 Australian police officers were sent to Cyprus for 12 months. This deployment revealed the importance of including civilian personnel in peacekeeping operations to help civilians and local police forces.
Women in peacekeeping
The role of women in military service and civilian peacekeeping operations has grown over the years. Today, more women serve in leadership positions in UN peacekeeping than ever before.
Women serve Australia and the UN as military personnel, police officers and civilians. They serve in many different roles, often bringing a good deal of compassion to those they help.
Female peacekeepers have played a vital role in interviewing and supporting women and girls who are survivors of gender-based violence. They also help to support child victims of violence. In some cases, female peacekeepers can engage better with female civilians for cultural or religious reasons.
Commemoration of our peacekeeping veterans
On Anzac Parade in Canberra, the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial commemorates Australian peacekeepers, past, present and future. Its inauguration on 14 September 2017 was the 70th anniversary of the first Australian peacekeeping mission.
International Day of UN Peacekeepers is held on 29 May each year. This is a day to recognise all uniformed and civilian personnel who have served in peacekeeping operations under the UN. Around the world, over 4000 peacekeepers have lost their lives serving under the UN flag since 1948.