The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be able to join you this morning to mark this very significant occasion.
I thank the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans’ Association for inviting me to this year’s commemoration of Australian Peacekeeper Day.
Despite the COVID-19 restrictions preventing us from holding a service in Canberra, I’m grateful we can nevertheless come together through this special video service.
I wish to acknowledge the Chair of the Association, Rob Woods, and Vice President Ian Lindgren, who are both tireless advocates for veterans.
I also acknowledge Matt Anderson, the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Padre Steve Neuhaus, who is the honorary Chaplain of the Association, Dale Cooper, who is representing the United Nations Overseas Policing Association of Australia, and also Kris Milne, the communications manager of the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans’ Association.
I also acknowledge any serving members of the ADF and also our veterans who are present today.
The work of the Association is vitally important and it’s appreciated not only by veterans and their families, but also the Australian Government.
Australia will never forget our peacekeepers and peacemakers or the sixteen Australians who have lost their lives on peacekeeping operations. Australia owes them all a great debt of gratitude.
As we know, today is the 74th anniversary of Australia’s first deployment on a peacekeeping operation.
Our history of peacekeeping is a very proud one. Australians were the world’s very first peacekeepers to be deployed into the field, and that was part of a mission to the Netherlands East Indies in 1947, and since that time, our military personnel, civilians and police officers have deployed to more than 60 countries on 70 operations.
The tasks that they have been engaged in are incredibly diverse, ranging from clearing land mines, training personnel, facilitating humanitarian aid and maintaining peace during elections.
The 1990s were particularly busy years in the history of multinational peacekeeping. Royal Australian Navy ships, for the first time, took part in a peacekeeping operation enforcing UN imposed sanctions against Iraq before and after the 1991 Gulf War.
In 1993, over two thousand Australian peacekeepers were in the field with contingents deployed to Cambodia and Somalia. In 1994–95 Australians also served in Rwanda. Then, in 1999, Australian Federal Police deployed to East Timor as part of a UN force known as UNAMET, the United Nations Mission in East Timor, to oversee East Timor’s referendum on independence from Indonesia.
And then, in September 1999, Australia led, for the first time ever, an international peacekeeping force, INTERFET, the International Force in East Timor to help restore peace and begin the work of reconstruction in that new nation. 5,500 from the three services served on that mission. It was the first and only time Australia led an international peacekeeping operation, and it was extraordinarily successful.
Our peacekeeping efforts continue to the present day. Australia has people deployed on overseas operations, including in South Sudan, Mali and the Middle East.
It takes a special type of person to serve a cause greater than oneself, and it’s important that the stories of our peacekeepers and peacemakers are recognised, shared and treasured.
Private Miles Wootten was a peacekeeper in the Australian Army who served in Rwanda. He wants the stories of peacekeepers told.
He said this:
“To the people who think peacekeepers don’t belong, I say talk to the peacekeepers, find out their stories, don’t just write them off as every medal tells a story.”
At the age of 21, Miles, along with 600 Australians was deployed to Rwanda as part of Operation Tamar. For Miles, the deployment to this war torn country would change his life forever. He, along with so many of our troops, saw the horror of genocide, the unspeakable atrocities, the violence and the slaughter.
He vividly remembers travelling to the Kibeho refugee camp for the first time. He said this:
“We came over a rise and there were a million people, I stopped and I looked at my co-driver and said, so that’s what a million people looks like. You can’t describe the sights, the sounds, the smells of a million people, a million people on top of each other.”
Despite the untold horrors and devastation that Miles and other Australians witnessed in Rwanda, he and all Australians who served there as well as their families know that their service made a real difference to those people. And just like so many other Australians who’ve served as peacekeepers and peacemakers, he would not flinch at doing it all again.
Miles would do so, even though it meant that he would miss so many important milestones in the life that he shared with his family, as he says of his time:
“I missed my first wedding anniversary, my family’s first Christmas and my daughter’s first birthday. But I would do it all again in a heartbeat. These people had nothing, they were eating bark off trees and grass from the ground, but I’d gladly go back,
I’d gladly do my time over everything that we went through and all that we did to help those kids who had lost everything and let them know that someone cares.”
This is the story of courage, of compassion, discipline and dedication, which is the hallmark of our peacekeepers and peacemakers.
The legacy that Miles and all the Australian peacekeepers left behind in Rwanda still burns brightly to this day.
The lasting impact of Australia’s mission there transformed the life of Theogene Ngamije. He was a young boy who was separated from his parents in a refugee camp.
Theogene recounts being saved by an Australian soldier. He says:
“He lifted me up and put me on his shoulder and took me to safety where the other kids were. He saved me and gave me a different understanding of what soldiers do. I hope to one day serve as a peacekeeper because I know how it feels and how it can change people’s lives.”
That young boy is now a man and he was to become a private in the Australian Army.
I think it says a lot about our nation that despite our relatively small population, tens of thousands of Australians have served as peacekeepers and peacemakers.
Wherever they’ve been deployed, they have earned the respect of the international community and have helped to restore peace and bring hope to countries blighted by war and conflict.
Peacekeeping and peacemaking is an extraordinarily high calling.
Service above self, service to country, service that goes to the very essence of our humanity.
May we never forget our peacekeepers and peacemakers.
Long may they continue to make our region and our world a safer and better place.
** End of transcript **
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