Fifty years of Australian civilian police involvement in international peacekeeping
29 Aug 2014|

Three police officers serving with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Their role was to help maintain order before and during the national elections. The men are all wearing blue United Nations (UN) caps.This year marks an important anniversary: 50 years ago, in May 1964, 40 Australian police officers arrived in Cyprus for a 12-month mission in what was to be the beginning of Australian civilian police involvement in international peacekeeping. While Australia agreed to contribute police officers to Cyprus, it had refused to commit military forces due to the volatile situation in Southeast Asia. The Cyprus request presented Canberra with the political opportunity to commit to international peacekeeping missions without jeopardising its own regional security concerns. And it provided the UN force in Cyprus with a contingent of personnel that could handle civilian tasks that the military wasn’t trained to undertake. Today the Australian police regularly form part of UN peacekeeping contingents, but here’s a look at how this legacy started.

On 17 February 1964, at Britain’s request, the UN Security Council took a look at the situation in Cyprus, which had steadily deteriorated since the outbreak of violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in December 1963. After the UN Secretary General had failed to reach an agreement with the parties, and following Turkish naval manoeuvres off the Cypriot coast, the Security Council adopted on 4 March a resolution authorising the Secretary General to create, with the consent of the Government of Cyprus, a peacekeeping force for the island.

The United Nations force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), commanded by India’s Lieutenant General Prem Singh Gyani, became operational on 27 March. Australia chose not to contribute soldiers to the peacekeeping force, despite British attempts to convince Canberra otherwise. Australia’s position was that, because of other commitments and the onset of the Confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia just as America increased its involvement in Vietnam, Australia would be unable to consider a contribution to Cyprus. That wasn’t to say the Australian Government didn’t see merits in supporting the UN mission; before sending police, it sent £A50,000 towards the cost of the peacekeeping force.

Meanwhile, General Gyani decided that military personnel weren’t trained for police duties and the experience in the Congo—where in 1960 the UN first deployed police—had shown that police were a valuable addition to a UN force. The United Nations police force for UNFICYP was established in April 1964. In Cyprus, the police were required to assist in restoring normal conditions and to deal with civilians—tasks in which the police had a greater chance of success than armed soldiers. Gyani thus called for a group of 200 policemen to make up a contingent. The role of the police would be to liaise with the local police, conduct joint patrols, staff joint check-posts, conduct special investigations, and prevent police malpractice.

Still reluctant, the government changed its mind in late April 1964 after an appeal from the Canadian Foreign Minister, to meet the Secretary-General’s request for a small contribution. For Canberra, there were sound reasons to choose that course of action: it didn’t require a reversal of its unwillingness to supply troops, and the government was keen to gain influence in New York in case the conflict between Malaysia and Indonesia was brought before the UN. Also, while Cyprus wasn’t strategically important to Australia, it was a member of the Commonwealth and Canberra didn’t want to see Britain’s military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean wane.

After successful discussions with state governments the Australian Government announced to Parliament on 6 May that it would supply a contingent of 40 police officers to the mission: 10 from New South Wales; 10 from Victoria; 5 from Queensland, South Australia and the Commonwealth police force; 3 from Western Australia; and 2 from Tasmania. The police mission that arrived in Cyprus in May 1964 was the beginning of a long tradition of Australian police deployments to UN peacekeeping operations. The police experience in Cyprus also revealed the importance of including a civilian component within a wider military operation to deal with civilians and local police forces.

For 50 years then, Australia has supported a civil–military approach to peacekeeping that draws upon diverse elements of national power, and which treats restoration of law and order as an integral part of the mission. That approach casts an important light on Australian engagement with UN-led intervention missions: our engagement has typically seen both strengths and weaknesses in military commitments, and a need for supplemental forms of involvement and order-building.

Sue Thompson is a lecturer and graduate convenor at the National Security College. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial.