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Senator Wright Matter of Public Interest speech on recognising peacekeepers on the Roll of Honour

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 28 Nov 2012

Today I want to pay tribute to the important work of Australia's peacekeepers, some of whom join us in the gallery today. What is it that they do for us in our name? Let us start by going back in time to Rwanda.

It is 1994 and a genocide has taken place over 100 days. During that short time 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu have died in a bloodletting of unimaginable horror. After the genocide has finished, members of the Australian Defence Force have come to Rwanda in August as peacekeepers serving as part of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda, UNAMIR. These Australians have come as a medical contingent, later known as AUSMED, to provide medical aid to the United Nations troops and the local population, and as an infantry company for security.

Some months later, in April 1995, some of these Australians are present at Kibeho refugee camp where 80,000 to 100,000 people are sheltering. As tensions rise between the Tutsi government forces and the predominantly Hutu refugees, these Australians witnessed a series of horrifying events. A thousand people are herded like animals into a small area and subjected to cruelty and indignity. Refugees fleeing from the camp are fired upon by the Rwandan Patriotic Front using automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. More than 2,000 Rwandans are killed, many being women and children.

As distressing as these events are, the UN Mandate and Rules of Engagement for Peacekeepers require them to exercise restraint. They are not permitted to intervene, rendering them powerless to take action to prevent the deaths they must stand by and watch. In Kibeho, it has been said that 'they were armed to the teeth and ready for combat but their arms were tied behind their back'. But under fire and under threat from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, they do set up a casualty evacuation station and provide medical treatment for the wounded civilians. Army doctor, Captain Carol Vaughan Williams was posted with a small group of doctors there and one witness describes her as 'heroically stitching up the wounded-with bullets flying all around them'. There is no safe place to operate; they just work in the open.

I have been told that it is the very nature of peacekeeping, the very restraint that peacekeepers are required to show, which makes their job particularly hard. The Kibeho massacre was a horrific and disturbing event for all those members of the Australian contingent. Many were later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and it is not hard to imagine that the frustration and guilt that comes with witnessing the killing of civilians without being able to intervene may have contributed to this condition.

This is one example of the many arenas in which Australian peacekeepers have operated since the Second World War in arduous and dangerous situations all over the world. The first deployment was back in 1947 when four Australians went to Indonesia as part of the UN Good Offices Commission to assist with the transition from Dutch colonial rule. Since then, more than 66,000 Australians have been involved in over 60 United Nations and Multinational peacemaking and peacekeeping operations overseas, proudly representing Australia in supporting global peace and security. These postings have included the Iran-Iraq border in the lead up to the first Gulf War, from 1988 to 1991, Western Sahara between 1991 and 1994, Papua New Guinea at the height of the civil war in Bougainville between 1997 and 2003, and Kosovo in 1999, among many others.

So who are these peacekeepers and peacemakers? Peacekeepers and peacemakers may be regular members of the Australian Defence Force, members of the military Reserve forces or members of the Australian Federal Police. All three services have made a fine contribution. In some cases they may volunteer to serve as peacekeepers, but in others they will be deployed as part of their work or service.

Since 1947, there are 48 Australians who have died on peacekeeping missions but who, unlike other members of the Australian Defence Force who die on active service, are not entitled to have their names recognised on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.   When it comes to peacekeeping, operations and missions are classified by the Department of Defence in one of three ways: warlike, non-warlike and peacetime. Currently, the Council of the Australian War Memorial interprets the Australian War Memorial Act as allowing only those who die in peacekeeping operations which are classified by the Department of Defence as 'warlike' to be eligible for the Roll of Honour. In the case of these 48 Australians, their service has not been classified as occurring in a warlike operation. Classifications of missions as warlike have been rare since 1947, and to a lay observer the bar is set exceptionally high. Even the Rwanda operation, in all its awfulness, was not originally classified as warlike. It took a sustained 10-year campaign by the Australian Peacekeepers and Peacemakers Veterans' Association, the APPVA and other veterans' organisations, before it was ultimately reclassified as warlike. It is this distinction which often appears arbitrary, based on the circumstances in which people are operating rather than the way in which they died or the very fact that they died while selflessly serving Australia in situations of danger and risk, which is unfair and illogical.

This is a matter of huge concern for peacekeepers and their families. They have a fundamental sense that their service is not properly acknowledged or valued by Australians and when they die their deaths are somehow less important or meaningful. I have been privileged to speak to family members of some of the 48 peacekeepers who have died and have come to an understanding of why this is so important to them. Through their words I hope I can convey the nature of the challenging but rewarding work our peacekeepers do on our behalf and make the case for the acknowledgement they deserve.

Avril Clark's son, Private Jamie Clark, died while serving in the Solomon Islands in 2005. Jamie was drawn to the Army from a young age. By his 21st birthday he had already served as a peacekeeper in East Timor and was then proud to be deployed to the Solomon Islands as part of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, known as RAMSI, which commenced in 2003 and continues today. Jamie's deployment came after the fatal shooting of an AFP officer, to provide additional security for the Australian Federal Police officers working there and so the very reason for his deployment highlights the inherent danger of this operation. An incident from Jamie's service in the Solomon Islands demonstrates the important, challenging and nuanced work peacekeepers do.

    He accompanied Australian Federal Police officers to the arrest of a local criminal. They were confronted by the suspect's wife at the front of the house. She was brandishing a machete and threatening the police while holding a child on her hip. It was an extremely dangerous situation. Although Jamie had only recently arrived in the Solomon Islands, he had picked up some of the local Pidgin language and, standing by her side, managed to explain to her his concerns for her and her child's safety.

    Finally, he was able to convince her to put down the machete, the police arrested her husband and the situation was resolved peacefully.

Jamie died on 10 March 2005 while his patrol was searching for hidden weapons at Mount Austin near Honiara. While assisting a colleague with a camera, he moved backwards and the ground collapsed under his feet. He fell approximately 30 metres into a cave. His body could not be recovered until the next day, using a hoist and helicopter, but one of his mates stayed with him all night to look after him even though he knew Jamie had died. As Jamie's mother, Avril, points out, 'That was his role as a mate, a soldier and a member of the peacekeeping team.'

Peter Pridue lost his son, Beau, just over a year ago. Beau joined the Army Reserve to do a trade course and went into armament fitting-stripping down rifles and maintaining armaments and equipment in good working order. He was asked to go to East Timor and loved the work there, rebuilding infrastructure in that traumatised country and helping the local people. As his service was coming to an end, he was planning to have a month's holiday and then go on to serve in the Solomons. But Beau died in September last year when he was thrown from a truck which hit loose gravel and then ran over him.                                  

Although Beau died while serving Australia, he is not entitled to have his name on the Roll of Honour. Beau's father still calls him his young bloke and says simply: 'If they are wearing the Australian armed forces badge on their shoulder and the Australian uniform and they are killed overseas or at home, they should be recognised. Otherwise it feels as if his life doesn't mean anything.'

This sense of being less valued lies at the heart of the campaign the APPVA has been running since 1999 to have the 48 Australian Defence Force members who have died in humanitarian, post-Armistice and peacekeeping, non-warlike operations recognised on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. In response, in 2007 the AWM Council introduced a Remembrance Book, which is kept in an unmarked and locked glass cabinet. The sign above it points to the Commemoration Roll only and highlights the sacrifices of other allied forces, the Red Cross and war correspondents-and they are all important-but does not refer to peacekeepers. It is a hard book to find. This distresses Sarah McCarthy. Her father, Captain Peter McCarthy, died in 1988. He was proud to be serving in Lebanon with the United Nations on behalf of Australia. One winter day he drove up a hill with a fellow Canadian peacekeeper to look over the surrounding countryside and on the way down their jeep hit a landmine. At the time he died, Sarah was a little girl. Her favourite photograph of her father shows him wearing his Australian uniform and his United Nations blue peacekeeping beret.

Sarah and her mother, Sue, cannot understand why his name cannot be recorded on the Roll of Honour like the Australian soldier also in the ADF who died in similar circumstances, driving over a landmine in Afghanistan. Sarah does not accept that there should be a distinction, that her father should not be treated equally with his peers just because, as she sees it, he was wearing a blue hat when he died.

Arguably the most important physical representation of Australia's recognition of this service is the Australian War Memorial and in particular the memorial's remarkable Roll of Honour. The roll displays the names of fallen Australian service men and women. It is a place where Australians and overseas visitors can go to reflect on their service and sacrifice. On Remembrance Day and throughout the year, family members can place a red poppy next to the name of their loved one in an important symbol of thanks and remembrance. For Sarah and the families and friends of those who have died in the cause of peace on Australia's behalf the Remembrance Book is just not good enough. Sarah wants to be able to put a poppy next to her father's name on the Roll of Honour, proudly remembering him and his service to Australia, just as it is possible for the children of his peers to do.

It is time that we all far better understand and respect the varied, important and often courageous work of Australian peacekeepers. Clearly, many Australians already agree, with 19,829 people having now signed the petition started by Avril Clark calling on the council of the AWM to change their procedures and recognise the 48 Australians who have died on peacekeeping missions by placing their names on the Roll of Honour. In January the Australian War Memorial Council will be reconsidering this issue. Given the enormous contribution that Australian peacekeepers have made to international peace and security and the risks and sacrifices they undergo in the service of their country, that is only fair and just. They deserve equal recognition on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. I urge Australians who share this belief to make their views known to the council.

I dedicate this speech to those people who have died while serving Australia in the interests of peacemaking and peacekeeping. Their names are: Henry Dudley Andrews, Ashley Arthur Baker, Scott Bennet, Ian Percy Bevis, Mark Bingley, James Arthur Carter, Jamie Clark, James Edgar Coatsworth, Matthew Davey, William John Davis, Adam Dunning, Susan Lee Felsche, Ronald John Garrett, Matthew Goodall, Patrick Mark Hackett, Alan Spencer Hawken, Albert William Haymes, Maxwell James Hennessy, John Herbert Hyland, George James Stanley Innes, Garth George Jarman, Wendy Elizabeth Jones, John Rhoden Kane, Paul Kimlin, Jonathan King, John Edward Kollias, Ronald James Leigh, Shawn Lewis, Norman Lloyd Lott, Clive Joseph McArthur, Paul Stuart McCarthy, Peter James McCarthy, Arthur Jack Miller, Kenneth William Nelson, Robert Harold Nimmo, Cyril Hans Nissen, John Nowell, Joshua Nathan Noel Porter, Beau Edward Pridue, Mel Joseph Quinn, Evan Price Rees, Kenneth Richard Roberts, Lynne Elizabeth Rowbottom, Ronald James William Sharkie, Kevin Damian Joseph Shoppee, Donald Bain Sigg, Stephen Slattery, Ralph Nigel Keith Taylor, Llewelyn John Thomas, Lionel Aubrey Tucker, Brian Charles Waller and Ian Donald Ward. Rest in peace.


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