History of peacekeeping

The United Nations was set up in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. Australia was a founder member; today almost every country on earth has joined.

The United Nations Charter envisaged a system of collective security, in which member states would provide forces to defend countries against aggression. This did not work, partly because of the Cold War, and partly because most conflicts since then have been civil wars within states.

Peacekeeping as we know it grew up as a compromise, using minimal force and generally only being employed with the consent of the warring parties. Military observers, usually unarmed, might monitor a ceasefire or peace agreement. Later came peace enforcement operations, in which armed peacekeepers were authorised to use force to prevent further bloodshed. Today more complex peacekeeping operations use a great variety of specialist skills to give societies which have been shattered by war the space in which to rebuild themselves.

Not all peacekeeping is done by the United Nations. Politics may prevent the United Nations' involvement; a regional organisation or a body like the Commonwealth may take charge; or the United Nations itself may give an individual country responsibility for leading a force.

A question of definition

There are many definitions of "peacekeeping". In this exhibition, we use it to mean any military operation by an impartial multinational force which tries to prevent or end war or helps a society rebuild in the aftermath of war. Peacekeepers may be armed, but they should use the minimum level of force necessary to achieve their aims.

Australia: a peacekeeping nation

About 15,000 Australians have taken part in nearly forty peacekeeping operations, helping to lessen the effects of around 25 different conflicts. Our largest commitment was in East Timor; the smallest was Guatemala, where we sent one observer. Seven Australians have commanded or led multinational peacekeeping operations.

Generally peacekeepers are not a target themselves, but the areas in which they operate are dangerous: fighting may still be taking place, or the leftovers of fighting, such as landmines, may create their own dangers. More than 1,600 personnel from other countries have been killed in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

Australia has been very fortunate: up to mid-2001, only ten Australian peacekeepers had died: two killed by landmines, one in a plane crash, two in vehicle accidents, two in rifle accidents, two of sickness or disease, and one accidentally drowned.

Training, discipline, common sense and good luck have all contributed to Australia's enviable record.

Please note this exhibition was created in 2001 and the information was correct at that time.