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Peacekeepers also serve the country

Date

The Canberra Times

EDITORIAL

It is practically unheard of for public petitions, even those boasting tens of thousands of genuine signatures, to have the effect of immediately altering official government or bureaucratic policy. So it was not unexpected that the Council of the Australian War Memorial would react to a petition calling for peacekeepers who die on ''non-warlike operations'' to be included on the memorial's Roll of Honour by choosing the status quo.

The petition was jointly presented to the AWM council on Monday by Avril Clark and Sarah McCarthy. The motivation for their push is highly personal. Mrs Clark's son, Private Jamie Clark, died in the Solomon Islands in 2005, while Ms McCarthy's father, Peter, was killed in Lebanon in 1988. Both were deployed on peacekeeping operations at the time of their deaths, and so are not eligible to be included on the Roll of Honour reserved exclusively for those who die ''in war or on warlike service''.

Their names are, however, included in the memorial's Remembrance Book, which is reserved for Australian Defence Force personnel and members of Australian police forces who die on non-warlike operations. The memorial's third honour roll records the names of Australians who died in wars while serving with the allied forces, the merchant navy and certain civilian organisations.

The AWM's policy of not including the names of peacekeepers on the bronze panels that comprise the celebrated Roll of Honour in the museum's commemorative area is not a matter of oversight or unwitting discrimination. Indeed, those panels include the names of three peacekeepers. Rather it appears to be a matter of ponderous bureaucracy.

The criteria for inclusion on the roll are clearly and unambiguously spelt out on the AWM's website. To be eligible, an individual must have died while ''serving with or directly as a result of service with a military unit raised by one of the Australian colonies, or after Federation, by the Commonwealth of Australia; and have died during or as a result of service in one of [16] conflicts within the specified periods''. As to why three peacekeepers appear on the honour roll, the website states this was because they ''died on operations classified by the Department of Defence as warlike''.

It was the vision of memorial founder Charles Bean that the names of all those who died serving in the Australian forces during World War I would appear on a roll of honour. Australia's official involvement in what can only be described as insurrections, rebellions, guerilla actions and other undeclared conflicts since then has obviously necessitated changes to the criteria.

Peacekeeping, as the name plainly suggests, is generally a non-warlike activity. But the reality for servicemen and women deployed on such operations has frequently been very different. Lebanon, where Captain McCarthy died, is illustrative of the occasional divergence between official status and actuality. An undeclared war raged there on and off from 1970 until 1990, claiming an estimated 120,000 fatalities. Israeli troops invaded the country in 1982 and again in 2006. With hindsight, it is difficult to fathom how the peacekeeping operation of which Captain McCarthy was a part came to be classified as ''non-warlike''. Doubtless there were hopes at the time that a peacekeeping operation conducted under the auspices of the United Nations could keep the armed groups from each other's throats, but in the event Lebanon's sectarian conflict worsened between 1985 and 1989.

The situation that led to a sizeable international security contingent being sent to the Solomon Islands in 2003 was obviously not ''warlike'' but it was not entirely peaceful or without risk either, as the accidental death of Private Clark and the ambush and murder of an Australian Protective Service officer in 2004 illustrates.

The point Mrs Clark and Ms McCarthy make is that the role carried out by Australian peacekeepers can be dangerous, even deadly, and that it is the Department of Defence (and ultimately the federal government) that assigns these tasks to serving soldiers. Most right-thinking Australians would regard the act of denying commemorative privileges to the families of peacekeepers killed in warlike situations on what is, in effect, a techni-cality as inequitable and wrong. Encouragingly for Mrs Clark and Ms McCarthy and other petitioners, the memorial council has not ruled out reviewing the matter at its next meeting. Petitioners may also be hoping former Liberal Party leader Brendan Nelson, who takes his post as the memorial's new director next month, can also advance their cause.

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