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The Value of Military Operations other than War: Peacekeeping, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief

Lecture to the Australian War College, Canberra, 15 August 2023

Australia has had a long record of engagement in military operations other than war, which I will take for present purposes to primarily mean peacekeeping and HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief). This is an area where we have consistently enhanced our international reputation, even if it is the case that the small scale of many of our individual commitments, and their reduced overall level over the last two decades, has not fully matched our capacity. I have no doubt – and hope I will leave you in no doubt – about the value of such operations: for those they are immediately designed to protect, for positively shaping our strategic environment, for the professional development of our military, and for our larger national interest. And I have no doubt that we can and should be doing more in this space than we have been in recent years.

Australia’s peacekeeping operations have most often been conducted under UN authority. We were in fact the first UN peacekeepers to deploy anywhere, as part of a military observation mission in the Netherlands East Indies, now Indonesia, in 1947. But our most intense engagement was in the 1990s, in particular with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), outstandingly commanded by our Lt-General John Sanderson, and the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM), with at one stage in 1993 over 2000 military and police peacekeepers in the field in these two missions alone; and also our contribution of just over 600 personnel to the post-genocide UNAMIR II mission in Rwanda. Other high-profile operations have been the Australian-led International Force East Timor (Interfet) in 1999–2000, involving 5500 personnel as a non-UN force but acting in accordance with UN resolutions, and the successful Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) from 2003 to 2013, acting in response to a request from our neighbour, over the course of which more than 7000 Australian personnel were deployed.

Peacekeeping – the basic role of which has always been the deployment of military and other personnel to help ensure the effective implementation of peace agreements reached between warring states or parties, and to avoid backsliding – has evolved over time. Traditional peacekeeping focused narrowly on monitoring, supervising and verifying ceasefire and related agreements, but in more recent years – recognising how fragile in reality many such agreements are – the conception of the role has expanded to involve a much more intense focus on active stabilization operations, recognizing that these may require the use of real force. Significantly strengthened protection of civilians mandates (POC) are now regularly given to peacekeeping operations, to enable them – at least in theory – to deal much more effectively with violent spoilers than was the case in the past.

As to HADR, thousands of Australians have acted as ‘humanitarian peacekeepers’ in combined civilian and military offshore emergency relief operations. These began with our medical response to the impact of the Spanish flu in the South Pacific in 1918, were followed by responses to volcano eruptions in Papua New Guinea in 1937 and 1951, and then took off on a regular basis after 1960, with dozens of significant interventions since then around the Pacific and South East Asia and occasionally further afield, not least in the harrowing Aceh disaster relief operation after the catastrophic 2004 tsunami.

Though operations short of warfighting usually tend to get nothing like the attention publicly that comes with full-scale involvement in kinetic conflict, these should never be thought of as second-order operations for the Australian military. They can be very high-intensity, high-risk, and certainly require for successful accomplishment high levels of competence and commitment at all levels.


I was actively involved, as Foreign Minister from 1988-96, with the decisions to send Australian peacekeepers to new UN missions in Cambodia, Somalia and Rwanda.

The most harrowing of these operations for everyone involved was Rwanda, where – in the twelve months following the international community’s catastrophic failure to prevent or halt the 1994 genocide – we sent two contingents of medical and infantry support personnel to contribute to UNAMIR II’s mission to protect displaced persons, refugees and civilians still at risk: a mission ultimately no more successful than UNAMIR I in preventing ongoing carnage – this time primarily perpetrated by Kagame’s Tutsi-based RPF wreaking vengeance as they regained control of the country. The Australian personnel witnessed many traumatic events and were often in grave danger. In particular, no one involved will ever forget the terrible massacre of several thousand Rwandans that occurred in the Kibeho IDP camp in April 1995. The 32-strong Australian medical detachment that was present there at the time was utterly powerless to prevent the horror erupting around them, but under the leadership of Captain Carol Vaughan-Evans performed admirably, in incredibly stressful and distressing circumstances, as a casualty clearing station.

A much more successful UN operation, and the one in which I was most closely personally involved, was that in Cambodia in the early 1990s. Although now three decades old, I think this remains a useful case study not only of what makes for successful peacekeeping operations, but what Australia is capable of achieving when we really commit ourselves, and worth discussing in more detail.

Australia in fact played three major roles in the Cambodian peace process, and the peacekeeping operation which followed it. The first, in late 1989, was to make, and sell to all the relevant actors, the breakthrough conceptualisation which made the resolution of a long running conflict possible: essentially, by advocating an unprecedentedly major role for the UN in the transition process which would give China a face-saving way of withdrawing its support for the Khmer Rouge. The second, in early 1990, was to produce (with our ‘Red Book’ working papers prepared to support our Indonesian colleagues as chair of the crucial Jakarta conference early that year) the basic design and feasibility study for the peacekeeping operation, until then the biggest, and most far-reaching in scope, UN peacekeeping operation ever mounted. The third, in 1992-93, and essentially in recognition of the prominent role we had played in the first two, was to assume the military leadership of the peacekeeping operation itself, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which in my judgement – and that of many others – was crucial in holding the whole peace process together.

I think the lobbying effort of which I remain proudest during this period was that which resulted in the appointment of John Sanderson as military commander of UNTAC, when it was finally approved by the Security Council in February 1992. Within a month he was on the ground, alongside Secretary-General's Special Representative, Yasushi Akashi, the civilian head, and the first operational units, and the leadership role he played in holding the organization’s nerve during some very stressful periods when a number around him were losing theirs was really decisive.

With its 15,900 military personnel, 3,600 civilian police and 1,020 administrative personnel, with 34 nations contributing to the military operation and 45 to the peace keeping exercise overall, UNTAC was a breathtakingly large commitment from the international community in terms of anything that had gone before. At no stage was the operation really plain sailing, and trouble was not long in coming. Within three months, by June 1992, it became apparent that one of the central elements of the comprehensive settlement would not be fully implemented due to the refusal of the Khmer Rouge to canton and disarm their troops. Breaches of the ceasefire also occurred, though on a relatively small scale.

More troubling were attacks directed at UNTAC civilian and military personnel. A reason cited by the Khmer Rouge for their intransigence was that Hun Sen's government retained effective control of their administrative structures. Certainly it was the case that the UN Civil Administration component was deployed far too slowly, and never in fact became the confident monitoring and neutrality-guaranteeing body that it had been intended to be. The Khmer Rouge never did cooperate with UNTAC or show any willingness to participate in the UN organised elections.

Despite all this, and the violence which characterised the electoral campaign (not instigated only by the Khmer Rouge), the general atmosphere was judged sufficiently neutral for the elections to proceed. This they did in May 1993, with an almost 90 per cent turnout and, to everyone's surprise and delight, almost no violent disruptions. I, for one, have never been more moved than when I saw those first satellite pictures of men, women and children lined up at the polling stations in their scores of thousands, knowing the risk of bomb attack, but thrilled at the prospect of peace at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives.

The results brought a further surprise, the clear winner being Sihanouk's FUNCINPEC, with Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) coming second. Hun Sen absolutely refused to accept this, and an uneasy power-sharing arrangement was eventually adopted, with Sihanouk's son, Ranariddh as 'First Prime Minister', and Hun Sen as 'Second Prime Minister’. That was a foretaste of everything that was to come over the next three decades in terms of the unravelling of all our hopes for a genuinely democratic political systems and a serious human-rights respecting culture, and I think in retrospect the failure of the international community to more vigorously resist that first big power play by Hun Sen was a mistake, born both of weariness and a sense that the Cambodians could and should now be trusted to sort things out themselves.

But, all that said, the UN-supervised settlement did achieve its principal aims. The external patrons, not least China with the Khmer Rouge, did withdraw material support for the various political groupings, sucking away the oxygen that had sustained civil war for so long and bringing it eventually to a close. The settlement succeeded in removing the Cambodian conflict as a source of regional tension; it enabled Vietnam to enter into much more productive relations regionally and internationally; the more than 365, 000 displaced Cambodians from the Thai border were successfully repatriated; the path was cleared for Cambodia to assume its rightful place in the community of nations; and reconstruction could at last begin.

And from an Australian perspective, for everything that went wrong with the mission, and in its aftermath, there was a huge amount that went wonderfully right: certainly including the whole military operation under John Sanderson’s inspired leadership; the civil policing operation in which the AFP’s Bill Kirk played a leading role; the communications and media operation; the human rights operation within the limits of its mandate and resources; and in the election organisation and monitoring operation. Australian diplomats played a great and constructive role alongside UNTAC, as did Australian NGOs and NGO personnel on the ground.

Of course we and the world learned many lessons from the UNTAC operation. Although a great deal has been written on this subject, I think the best single account, and not just from an Australian perspective, is to be found in the final chapter of the book Cambodia From Red to Blue: Australia’s Initiative for Peace (Allen & Unwin, 1997) written by the Australian diplomat Ken Berry, who was on my ministerial staff at the time. He describes, along with a lot of other detailed analysis and prescription derived from what went right and wrong in UNTAC, the five main conditions which need to be satisfied if a peacekeeping operation is to be effective:

  • a conceptually sound and appropriately detailed peace plan (which was generally in place, not least as a result of Australia’s early efforts, but which did have some serious gaps: in particular vagueness on the role and operation of the Supreme National Council – set up including all four local parties to “embody Cambodian sovereignty” – on what should happen in the event of non-compliance by one or more of the parties);
  • clear and achievable goals (which were best defined and implemented for the holding of free and fair elections, but very weakly articulated for the crucial civil administration role, with less than 200 UN civilians means to oversee the operations of the country’s central ministries; the law and justice function was also, in retrospect, very underdone);
  • early deployment of adequate resources as soon as possible after the parties to the conflict have reached agreement (not well done in Cambodia, where it took five months after the Paris Agreement for the first UNTAC elements to arrive, and other five to six months for it to become fully operational, particularly on the civilian side);
  • support by the parties to the conflict (not achieved in the case of the Khmer Rouge, although that could have been anticipated given that it was pressured into the whole process by China and stood to lose the most of any of the parties from its success; in the absence of a peace enforcement mandate and resources, the UNTAC military component did a remarkable job in holding its nerve, and maintaining the confidence of the population in the viability of the process, during the election period); and
  • appropriate continuing external support for the operation (this was here maintained, and institutionalised through regular meetings of the ‘expanded P5’ or ‘Core Group’, which included the external backers of all the various factions, and helped ensure that they were continuously pressured and persuaded not to return to violence – and inhibited from doing so by their backers withholding, and convincing others to withhold) arms supplies and other material support.

Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief

One of the best evocations of what’s involved in these operations, not just technically, but in their physical and emotional impact on all those involved, is to be found in Steven Bullard’s In Their Time of Need: Australia’s Overseas Emergency Relief Operations 1918-2006, Volume VI of the Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations, which I had the pleasure of launching in 2017.

The conditions experienced by emergency teams are sometimes almost indescribably gruelling and harrowing, as one immediately appreciates reading the incredibly graphic and moving account in this book of the aftermath of the Banda Aceh tsunami in 2004. For example:

The morning triage round was often the hardest…Here lies a young woman, her breathing labouring through lungs filled with contaminated water and pus, a vacant stare and the foul odour of infected flesh betraying her slim prospects for survival. Nearby on a makeshift stretcher a man grimaces in pain, his body taut and rigid with tetanus. Further on a young boy barely clings to life, his gasps for air increasingly shallow as his body succumbs to aspiration pneumonia, the result of breathing in water contaminated with sewage, filth and dead bodies … his prognosis was poor – he would die within the hour.

…The operating room was cramped and hot, with hordes of flies attracted to the pile of rotting flesh cut from limbs and the pools of blood on the floor. Rows of body bags and medical waste thrown into the courtyard were visible through the open doorway, a constant reminder, if one was necessary of the primitive conditions at the hospital…Layers of plastic sheeting were draped over the two operating tables in the room to keep them free of bodily fluids, and were then used to scoop up patients and their mess after surgery ready for the next case.

As Steve Bullard again records, and I’ll quote him again in full because this passage tells us so much about what these operations mean to those engaged in them:

For survivors of the 2004 tsunami, their lives would never be the same. So it was for those who left their comfortable lives in Australia to help. Many would suffer for their generosity of spirit with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, manifest in changes of behavior, attitudes and relations with family, friends and colleagues. Although the experience of the [Aceh surgical team] was perhaps at the one end of the scale of horror faced by Australians who contributed to disaster responses overseas, they are representative of an attitude that manifest throughout this book, from the first operation in the South Pacific down to the present.

It is an attitude summed up by David Scott, one of the [Aceh] anaesthetists. In answering the question posed by an Indonesian patient, ‘Why are you here’, Scott replied it was because ‘we are neighbours, and neighbours help each other’.

One of the themes running through all the narratives, which makes one rather proud to be an Australian, is just how often, in how many different environments, the Australian relief teams, with both their military and civilian components, distinguished themselves from so many others – and were so often recognized for doing so – for just plunging in, rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the job, however demanding, difficult, dirty or outright disgusting, if that job cried out to be done. Cutting through in the process whatever bureaucratic or procedural obstacles that were piled in the way. And doing so in a way that endeared them, if not always to the officials, certainly to the locals they were there to help.

This is consistent with my own observations, as Foreign Minister and then later as head of the International Crisis Group, not so much of disaster relief operations but peacekeeping operations in which Australians have been involved. One of the things that has constantly delighted me is the extent to which, as I have moved around, I have found that Australian peacekeepers are the toast of just about every local community in which they have ever served, and win us the plaudits of professionals around the world. There just does seem to be something instinctively egalitarian about Australians, whatever their background, education or life experience. There is an absolute willingness to take others as they find them, neither sucking up nor kicking down, responding to the way others behave, not the way they look, or dress or talk, and whatever their station in life.

Of course there will always be exceptions, especially when military operational mandates are more kinetic than protective, as we are all currently finding so distressing in the context of revelations about possible war crimes being committed by our personnel in Afghanistan. But the culture of decency I have described does seem to overwhelmingly prevail when Australians are serving in community situations abroad, and it makes me for one feel very proud.

The Value of Peacekeeping and HADR

One of the things I found both interesting and troubling in Bullard’s book on HADR was how often those responsible for mounting these operations nevertheless seemed to struggle to find a policy rationale for them. Clearly not everyone in high Defence places has always been persuaded that humanitarian assistance and disaster relief is a mainstream ADF role. Providing a real-world training opportunity maybe. But defence and foreign affairs policymakers have often strained to find a hard security rationale, particularly for expensive HADR operations conducted in areas far away from perceived defence priority zones, where no obvious threat to traditional Australian interests was involved.

When it comes to HADR we will no doubt respond with appropriate generosity and commitment if another Aceh-like natural disaster erupts, at least in our own Indo-Pacific region, but in the case of peacekeeping, our level of global engagement is currently as low as it has ever been, and clear that Defence policymakers are currently finding it even harder to identify a policy rationale for our engagement in them. Australia is currently active in only three peacekeeping operations: two in the Middle East, UNDOF ( with1 Staff officer) and UNTSO (with 11 experts on mission), one in South Sudan - UNMISS (with 13 Staff officers and 1 expert on mission). That makes for a grand total of 26 Australian staff deployed – a lamentably much smaller commitment than our national wealth makes possible, and that our sense of global responsibility should demand.

My own clear view is that there are three distinct policy rationales for being much more demonstrably committed to playing a major role in military operations other than war:

First, these operations surely have utility in building a professionally competent defence force. It is not within my own professional competence or experience to further develop this theme, but it seems to me self-evident, and I have been reinforced in that view by many conversations with John Sanderson and other ADF commanders over the years. Multiple skill-sets are involved in conducting successful peacekeeping and HADR operations – including complex logistics management, making fine judgements about the use of force in Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO), and maintaining team morale in incredibly difficult and stressful situations.

Second, peacekeeping and HADR operations do, I believe, make an unquestionably positive contribution to shaping a safer strategic environment both globally and regionally, quite apart from the immediate benefits they deliver – when successful – to those countries and populations being assisted. This is a theme which I will only briefly touch on here, knowing that it will be further addressed later in this course. But in my observation, the interstate cooperation and collaboration they invariably require help build habits of contact, communication and mutual trust which can be of incalculable benefit in managing a wider range of sensitive security issues. It is no accident that disaster risk reduction and relief coordination have long been central agenda items in ASEAN and other Asia-Pacific institutional dialogue settings. And to refer again to the Cambodian case, I think it can be fairly argued that the demonstrably productive peacemaking and peacekeeping process in which Australia was so centrally engaged gave an important kick-start to the regional architecture, in APEC and the Asean Regional Forum, that we were contributing to building around the same time.

Third, being a significant contributor to peacekeeping and HADR operations is one very important way of demonstrating Australia’s commitment to being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen. That is very much in Australia’s national interest to be and be seen to be a good international citizen is a theme I have been arguing since my first days as Foreign Minister back in the early 1980s, and which I have spelt out again in my little book in the Monash National Interest series published last year, Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency.

For a state to be a good international citizen means, above all else, caring about other people’s suffering and doing everything reasonably possible to prevent and alleviate it: being not just a wholly inward-looking, self-interested country, but a decent, selfless one that others respect, trust and want to emulate. States that earn that description are those seen to be seriously committed to helping others, even when there is no direct, immediate or other obvious security or economic benefit to themselves to be derived from doing so— certainly in areas such as peacemaking and peacekeeping, and humanitarian relief and development assistance, as well as human rights, environmental protection, pandemic response and nuclear and other arms control.

The response one often gets from political hard-heads, as I can testify from my own Cabinet experience, is that all this is really just boy-scout stuff – something nice to do from time to time if there’s not much cost involved – but not the real business of national government. My answer is that we have both a moral imperative and a national interest imperative to be, and be seen to be, a good international citizen.

The moral case is easy to make. States, like individuals, have a moral obligation to do the least harm, and the most good, they can do. Answers will vary, depending on one’s philosophical or spiritual bent, as to what is the source of that obligation. But whether one’s approach to ethics is religious or secular, and whatever the cultural tradition in which one has been brought up, there is convergence at the core around respect for our common humanity.

But the returns from good international citizenship are more than just warm inner glows. Decent behaviour can generate hard-headed, practical national advantage of the kind that appeals to realists—and political cynics—as well as idealists. Virtue is not only its own reward, but brings other national rewards.

The first return is reputational. A country’s general image, how it projects itself—its culture, its values, its policies—and how in turn it is seen by others, is of fundamental importance in determining how well it succeeds in advancing and protecting its traditional national economic and security interests. ‘Soft power’ matters in determining whether one is seen as a good country to invest in and trade with, to visit, to study in, to trust in security terms, and to work with in international forums.

The second return from good international citizenship is reciprocity. Foreign policymakers are no more immune to ordinary human instincts than anyone else, and if I take your problems seriously, you are that much more likely to help me solve mine.

The third is progress on issues where the whole world, including us, ultimately benefits, like climate change, but where the national costs for many players might seem for a long time to outweigh the benefits, and where the necessary collective international action is accordingly very hard to achieve. The more states that have a cooperative, collective, mindset, the better the chance of these things getting done.

Australia likes to think of itself as a good international citizen and from time to time has deserved to be so regarded: our response to the crisis in Ukraine – with sanctions, equipment supply and refugee support – is a case in point. But too often our overall record has been patchy at best, lamentable at worst, and is presently for the most part embarrassingly poor, and our current commitment to peacekeeping is certainly in that category.

What is intriguing is that, on all the available evidence the problem lies not with the negative attitudes of our people, but our governments. Australian polling conducted by the Lowy Institute over the last fifteen years shows clear, and often overwhelming, public support (with overseas aid no exception) for all my benchmark tests of good international citizenship.

When governments have taken strongly principled positions on these issues, they have had no obvious difficulty in taking the community with them. The nervousness so many of them have shown has not had any obvious political justification. Maybe these issues are not sufficiently central and salient to win elections, but there is no evidence of which I am aware that they lose them.

Looking to the Future

When it comes to HADR in the future, it is hard to believe anything other than that demands for Australian engagement will increase. The extreme weather events being generated by climate change – and our so far inadequate efforts to respond to it – are only going to increase the probability, not least in our own Indo-Pacific region, of natural disasters requiring major international response. And COVID-19 showed us the havoc potential of major pandemics, which could recur at any time.

As to peacekeeping, given the general fragility of the global geopolitical environment and the reality or potential for civil conflict in so many countries, both within and beyond our own region, it is equally hard to believe that occasions for the potential deployment of Australian peacekeepers will not continue to arise. That said, it is becoming increasingly hard in a UN context, with consensus in the Security Council ever more elusive post-Ukraine, to translate need into support for major new blue helmet deployments. And hard even to maintain support for existing ones, at least in the case of the ‘big four’ missions in Africa – in the DRC, CAR, South Sudan and Mali – which still field between them more than 60,000 troops.

As described in an excellent recent paper on the future of UN peacekeeping from my old stamping ground, the International Crisis Group, the long-standing small missions in the Middle East continue to be supported, and the small post-civil war verification mission in Colombia was deemed a success, as were the larger post-Rwanda and Somalia African operations in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire. But there is a growing sense that the days are numbered for large scale stabilization operations of the current ‘big four’ African type. A combination of factors are involved, most obviously the failure of these peacekeepers to project sufficient effective force to deter or halt violence against civilians, notwithstanding their clear protection mandates, which has led among other things to a move toward host countries turning to other security partners, as with the CAR enlisting Russia’s Wagner Group. Compounding the problem has been a perception that the ever more divided Security Council has been failing to offer UN peace operations enough political backing and strategic guidance; growing pessimism among Council members about the general value of peacekeeping, at least of the very large scale ‘big four’ type; and the perennial problem of securing sufficient funding.

All that said, there is still plenty of support globally for the concept of peacekeeping, and a reasonable degree of confidence that well-planned, properly mandated, sufficiently resourced, and well-led missions can still successfully deliver, both on immediate civilian protection and humanitarian assistance, and on the ultimate objective of achieving sustainable peace. We must continue to expect the need for such operations to arise in the future, and Australia to be asked from time to time to contribute to them. But while we can probably reasonably expect, as I said earlier, any Australian government to be as generously responsive in the future as we have been in the past when it comes to natural disaster response, at least in the Pacific and around Asia, there is much less ground for optimism when it comes to peacekeeping: 26 personnel currently in the field tells its own story.

So let my last word be this. When it comes to peacekeeping, and HADR further afield – as with a number of other policy areas where they may well be no immediate or obvious security or economic returns from acting out of basic human decency – we can and should do much better. A country with Australia’s general record and reputation as an energetic, creative middle power which has many times in the past played a world-leading role in international diplomacy, and in delivering global and regional public goods, should be setting its sights much higher than in recent years we have managed to do.