May 29 is International Day of UN Peacekeepers, but what exactly is the role of a peacekeeper and when did they begin operation? UNSW Canberra academic and historian Dr John Connor shares with us a short history of peacekeeping.

How long have peacekeepers been around?

The origins of the first peacekeeping operation will probably always remain a matter of dispute. However, the Slesvig International Commission which administered this region of Denmark in the immediate aftermath of the First World War from January to June 1920 is a strong candidate for being the first peacekeeping mission.

The International Commission succeeded in its task because there was a solution to the border question that was acceptable to both the Danish and German populations. In 1901, a Danish academic named Hans Clausen had devised a demarcation line that largely separated the two communities. The London Times noted that the ‘Clausen Line’ ran ‘mainly through a stretch of open country with moors and marshes’ and could therefore form an uncontroversial international border.       

Denmark was anxious to avoid future border disputes with Germany and was determined to reclaim only the Danish population in north Slesvig.

The four commissioners reflected the multinational character associated with peacekeeping: The representatives of the victorious British and French Allies were carefully balanced by commissioners from Norway and Sweden who had been neutral during the First World War.

When did Australia become involved in peacekeeping operations?

Australian military personnel have been involved in overseas peacekeeping operations since 1947, when four army officers went to Indonesia to oversee the ceasefire between the Netherlands East Indies Army and Indonesian troops. Subsequent Australian deployments have included the Middle East, Cyprus, Kashmir, Sinai, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

In the early 1990s, the Australian Government played a significant role in providing peacekeepers to Cambodia. This presence enabled a national election to be held in which over eighty percent of the Cambodian people participated.

Are there still active operations in which Australia is involved in currently?

The Australian Defence Force continues to participate in peacekeeping and regional assistance missions, though now at a lower scale. These have included regional operations such as Operation Anode which supported the Australian Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, until the operation concluded in 2004.

Main image source: Australian War Memorial P00716.024