Australia as Peacemaker - Dr Tania Miletic

How can we create a more peaceful world? Dr Tania Miletic reflects on the Australian experience of conflict prevention and peace building.

Iraq-Iran Military Observers (1988-1991), UN Mine Clearance Training Team, Peshawar, Pakistan (1989-1993), First Gulf War (1990-91), Cambodia (1991-93), Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia (1992), Somalia (1992-94), Rwanda (1994), Haiti (1994-95), Mozambique (1994-2002), Guatemala (1997), Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (1997-2003), East Timor (1999-2005, 2009), Solomon Islands (2000-2003), Sierra Leone (2000-2003), Ethiopia and Eritrea (2001-2013), Sudan (2005-2011), South Sudan (2011-)
Army, Air Force, Navy, Peacekeeping operations

How can we create a more peaceful world? Dr Tania Miletic reflects on the Australian experience of conflict prevention and peace building.


Dr Tania Miletic is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences (SSPS). She is an experienced peace and conflict studies academic and practitioner with a commitment to working collaboratively to translate research into policy and practice in conflict prevention and peacebuilding in the Indo Pacific region.

Tania was recently appointed to the University's Initiative for Peacebuilding within the Arts Faculty, to promote multidisciplinary research, teaching and policy development that supports effective engagement in conflict prevention and peacebuilding in the Indo Pacific region.

Between May 2015–November 2020, Tania was a Research Fellow, SSPS, engaged in the Australian International Conflict Resolution Project, which seeks to enhance the role of conflict prevention and peacebuilding in Australian foreign policy. The earlier phase of this project delivered a multi-country review of state support to peace processes, with support from Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, SSPS and the Melbourne School of Government.


Voiceover: Welcome to the Shrine of Remembrance podcast, exploring all facets of our wartime and military history. Next week, Friday 28 June, will mark the centenary anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which formalised the end of the First World War. In this podcast release, Dr Tania Miletic discusses the Australian experience of conflict prevention and peace building in the modern era. Tania is a Peace and Conflict Studies academic and practitioner from Melbourne. She previously worked with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Cambodia, supporting local actors engaged in peace processes across the region, and teaches postgraduate programs in Peace and Conflict Studies. She's currently with the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne, where she undertakes policy research on conflict prevention and peace building in Australian foreign policy. She also works as an independent consultant on a range of peacebuilding initiatives; including The South Sudanese Emerging Leaders Peacebuilding Initiative, 10 years specialised in Peace and Conflict Studies throughout her post-graduate Diploma in Psychology, Master's in Public Administration and PhD in Political Sciences. Thank you, Tania.

Dr Tania Miletic: Good afternoon. I too would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land in which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future. [NB: this talk was recorded in May 2019 prior to the formalisation of the Traditional Owners land boundaries across Melbourne] We meet on an important site to many Australians, a memorial to remember all those who have engaged in the armed conflicts and peacekeeping operations in which Australia has participated. It is a way that we reflect on the past, understand ourselves in the present, and narrate and vision our futures. I'm grateful to Leigh, who isn't here, Carolyn and the team for inviting me to be with you as part of these public talks and I'm particularly grateful that you've made your way here today to be here.

As per my introduction, I'm interested in both the study of contemporary conflicts and how we engage in approaches to conflict prevention and resolution, both here in Australia and abroad. I myself became interested in this area, largely in part because of my own family heritage. In the 1990s, I was working as a research psychologist with refugee and immigrant communities in Victoria. And around the time of the disillusion of former Yugoslavia, my father's country of origin, he was also experiencing progressive dementia, which was characterised by returning back to a time of wartime experiences for him. In many ways, I was learning about my father's past, witnessing death of family, fleeing and time in refugee camps, through the windows of his dementia. Like many of his generation, he believed that his children should inherit a future and not a past, so I actually had very little understanding about some of the historical complexities of former Yugoslavia.

I was particularly concerned about what I was seeing in the Australian community context with rising tensions with the Croatian and Serbian communities, especially here in Melbourne. And so, in many ways, my early research which looked at second and third generation Croatian and Serbian experiences in the Australian context led to a range of community initiatives here, was a turning point, if you like, and led me for the next two decades to work in this broad area which we can call peacebuilding, or conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

I'm actually quite interested to have this opportunity to talk about the title of the talk being Australia as Peacemaker and it reflects in some ways two aspects of the work I'm currently involved in. One is my work at Melbourne University with the Melbourne School of Government as part of the Australian International Conflict Resolution Project, which tries to learn from Australia's experiences towards enhancing the role of conflict prevention and peacebuilding in Australian Foreign Policy, as well as drawing on some of my experience as a practitioner in the region. I'd be interested to know and especially as we're a small group, perhaps what comes to mind when you think of those words Australia as peacemaker or perhaps what brought you into the room today?

Audience Member: Australia has, in the last hundred years or more has involved itself in a lot of wars. So, it would be interesting to know more about how we go about trying to keep the peace. We've been involved in lots of UN operations and disaster relief and so forth, but we've certainly also involved ourselves in a lot of conflict.

Audience Member: Billy Hughes' insistence that Australia have an independent position at the Versailles Conference, was that the breakthrough, and if that hadn't happened would it have been later before Australia was allowed to work independently?

Dr Tania Miletic: Thanks.

So I might use the microphone then but I heard so for some of us here it's an interest in perhaps Australia's role beyond engagement in wars and what we might consider engagements in peace, peacemaking or peacebuilding or peacekeeping, as well as where the origins to that might be, and unfortunately, that's probably not where I'll be starting off. It'll be probably more in the last couple of decades, rather, but these are really good questions. That what we have is both a long history of engagement in both conflict and contributions to peacemaking, as well. And earlier, just before we started, I also heard from Bob Crawford about this interest in also having stories that speak to Australia's contribution in peacemaking, which can be less well known than perhaps some of our other forms of engagement in conflicts.

Audience Member: And harder to sell.

Dr Tania Miletic: And harder to sell, yeah, and I'll come back to that, a little bit later, less well known and perhaps. And for Elizabeth, I think I'll put it, I'll start with a bit of a global context for the importance of contributing to conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

The number of countries experiencing armed conflict today is greater than any time in the past 30 years, and it comes at a devastating human cost. Violent conflict is recognised as one of the big obstacles to reaching any of the Sustainable Development Goals as sought by 2030 and essentially contradicts its aim to leave no one behind. It is predicted that more than half of the people living in poverty will be found in countries affected by high levels of violence. One person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.

Today, conflicts are more complex and protracted than ever before spreading across borders. While their origins are increasingly within states, affecting broader regions, involving more actors, and are more multi-dimensional. They are increasingly linked to global challenges such as climate change, natural disasters, cyber security and transnational organised crime. Conflict also comes at enormous economic cost for a medium sized developing country; an internal armed conflict can cost 30 years of GDP growth, and it can take 20 years for trade to return to pre-war levels. It is estimated that violence and conflict cost about 13% of the global economy.

In response to recent escalations in the rates of global conflict and violence, and associated numbers of people killed and forcibly displaced, the UN and some of its member states are taking seriously the question of how to build the national and collective capacity to more effectively prevent conflicts and sustain peace. The Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, has made conflict prevention central to where UN attention will lie, building on important reviews of the UN's peace and security architecture in 2015, on peace operations, peacebuilding and women peace and security. He believes that the UN needs to be re-orientated away from typically reactive responses to conflicts. He notes, however, that the primary work of conflict prevention and sustainable peace lies with member states.

Our work with the Australian International Conflict Resolution Project at the University of Melbourne focuses on considering how Australia has and can contribute to internationalised efforts towards enhanced prevention, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and in longer term approaches required for sustainable peace. We began this project as quite a small project, which was a commissioned report for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to look at how various states support peace processes. The review looked at Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The report aimed to identify steps which Australia could take.

We were looking at these different case studies with a view of thinking about what came up that could be of interest and consideration for Australia. Amongst the findings with the importance and centrality of government leadership to the establishment of effective national peace building processes, and particularly the types of institutional arrangements that can support these. How these can be strategic and enable context specific and coordinated whole-of-government approaches was very important. With most of the cases pointing to whole-of-government approaches, it was also interesting to see the different arrangements of how these are incorporated for the Prime Minister's Office, Foreign Affairs, development, defence, policing, intelligence, trade, and sometimes migration departments.

Other findings related to looking at expanded engagement with local actors involved in conflicts and the policies and practices that guide our internalised internationalised efforts, such as within the United Nations, and the ways in which experiences of these different states increasingly characterised by collaboration with other countries and non-state actors. Another consideration relates to documentation of past experience as fundamental for how we enhance future efforts. Yet few countries have already conducted such an analysis or tried to capture and articulate their experiences.

For this reason, we suggested to DFAT a comprehensive review of Australia's governmental, and especially diplomatic, support to peace processes over the past 25 years. And that's led to the current phase of the project, which has been a comprehensive review, primarily of diplomatic experiences, because to date, as far as we understand, there hasn't been such a review. Whilst there has been a lot written about, a large amount of information, looking at different experiences of Australia's engagement in conflicts and peacekeeping experience; there isn't that sort of comparative for diplomatic experiences. So over the past year or so, we've interviewed 120 serving and retired DFAT officers, as well as a number of defence, police, academic and NGO staff, with the idea of trying to draw out what are some of the experiences from within diplomatic staff who have engaged in various conflicts since 1990, and what we can learn towards enhancing future policy and programs in this area. Unfortunately, we're still in the process of doing our internal report to DFAT, but we'll have a public report available later in the year which I hope to be able to share in the near future.

We are looking at since 1990, because, for various reasons, that if you think about Australia's engagement in Cambodia, it's an example where Australia had a clear and important role in support of the peace process. For people involved, like then Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, it remains a clear example of what Australia can do in this area.

For Commander Lieutenant General John Sanderson, Cambodia was an opportunity for Australia to become engaged in South East Asia, in a way that would lay a future foundation for its role in Asia, and such revisioning still remains compelling. Australia was heavily involved in the deal broken between the many factions in Cambodia and negotiated and signed for the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991. The Australian Government continued its support of Cambodia's democratic aspirations, following up diplomatic encouragement with military support to the United Nations missions. First as part of UNIMIC, United Nations administration in Cambodia and the large United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, whose role was to supervise the ceasefire and the subsequent general election. Australian General John Sanderson led the military component and it was an integral part of the success of UNTACs mission.

It largely remains Australia's best remembered and significant contribution to international peacemaking and the diplomatic initiatives that were led by Gareth Evans, as I mentioned. Gareth continues to see the value of the contribution Australia made towards this inception and the adoption of the Paris Peace Agreement, which is now over 27-28 years ago. Gareth advocated and collaborated to develop a proposal that suggested a substantially enhanced UN role in the transition period. Reflecting on Australia's involvement in Cambodia for a workshop we ran, and whether Australia can play a bigger role in preventative diplomacy and peacebuilding efforts in the future, his short answer was that we can, and we should. He maintains that Australia has sufficient credibility and capacity to work cooperatively and constructively with others on international problems, that its motivation and political will has waxed and waned over the years.

Australia, as it did in Cambodia, can play a larger role in support of peace processes. Reflecting on Australia's motivation to engage in the peace process in Cambodia, John Sanderson, in an interview for a 2006 article I wrote, said that,

Now you can only engage on the basis that you are going to deliver something constructive to the Cambodian people that would endure.

John Sanderson too sees the value in reflecting on the Cambodian experience, but to use this experience for revisioning how Australia can improve its relations in a vastly different global arena. Australia's potential role in promoting peace and security at home and internationally needs to go beyond current thinking and acting with frameworks that are more about the past rather than the future.

To enhance the long-term effectiveness of Australia's Foreign Policies in the contemporary world, there could be great value in strengthening the Australian Governments conflict resolution and prevention capabilities. As Sanderson said,

We have to go in there with an intent that was the basis for our own society. If you want to ask the Australians to go and engage in a place like Cambodia, are you going to say to them, 'Look, as long as the outcome is stability, it doesn't matter what the ongoing situation is?’ You don't say that do you?

We know from Cambodia’s long struggle for peace from colonisation, war, Khmer Rouge, genocide, civil conflict, that the ongoing efforts to move from stability, that was much needed, to a fuller peace that includes justice, development and reconciliation is ongoing. The Australian Government, as well as Australian international organisations, and international actors continue to play an important role in Cambodia and South East Asia.

I wanted to mention somebody who's probably less familiar than Lieutenant General John Sanderson, but also very important reflection of the different ways in which Australia supports ongoing peacebuilding efforts in Cambodia in the region. Emma Leslie is an Australian based in Cambodia, who has worked in various ways throughout Asia since 1993. She's worked on international campaign to ban landmines, the working group for weapons reduction, and from 2008 she established the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies which she currently leads. It's a Cambodian based NGO working in the field of peacebuilding and conflict transformation in Asia. It's also where I have worked since 2006-12.

Given Cambodia's experience, she also considers the country as a vital and critical basis for regional learning. Emma has been involved as a peacebuilder in direct support to peace processes in the region, as well as through supporting practitioners through networks and education and training. She was the representative in support of the Philippines peace process, supporting the peace talks between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as a member of the International Contact Group since 2011. She's also observed the Myanmar peace process as an independent observer, in particular supporting the talks of the Karen National Union and the All Burma Students' Democratic Front. She serves as a consultant, as well as being a trainer to the Folke Bernadotte Academy in Sweden, for the UN Department of Political Affairs, meaning that she trains their mediators.

In 2005, she was one of the thousand women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2016, she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for her significant service to international relations through the facilitation of a network of conflict transformation and peacebuilding practitioners in the Asia Pacific region. CPCS, as it's known, is one of the partners that the Australian Government has supported in their efforts to engage in locally led peacebuilding efforts across the Asia region. The quote there is that,

Peace processes are hard, and those engaged need technical advice, training, encouragement, comparative experiences, networking and ideas. We've done that kind of work with both government and non-state actors, such as armed groups in the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.

An important aspect of Australian contributions to peace operations have been those in reflecting our Pacific regional cooperation. And it's important at a time where we have bipartisan support to continue to enhance our Pacific regional cooperation. I'm not a historian, but I can say that for writing about our Pacific engagements Associate Professor Bob Breen who has written that good neighbour as part of the Australian peacekeeping theories is part of our project and I draw on his own writings here.

Since 1990, the major conflicts in the Indo-Pacific area in which Australians have had a leading or substantial role have been in East Timor, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands. Others such as Afghanistan have involved significant personnel and financial contributions to a multilateral engagement led by the US. There has been Australian participation in some 40 odd UN peacekeeping missions since 1990. There has also been significant diplomatic and development involvement in a range of other countries including Sri Lanka, and as I mentioned, Myanmar and the Philippines.

By 2006, Australian Governments had evolved from post-Vietnam reluctance to intervene, except to protect and evacuate Australian citizens, to intervention and emergencies with Pacific Islands governments. Within this increasing disposition, the nature of Australia's efforts to support peace processes in the Pacific Islands changed. The new dimensions that evolved over time were the concurrent developments of a more whole-of-government ethos, and a whole-of-region approach, as well as its deepening partnership with New Zealand and other countries in the Pacific. The whole-of-government approach to peacebuilding involved DFAT, defence, Australian Federal Police collaboration, each department and agency bought complimentary but specialised skills and resources, the Australian Defence Force developed with inclusive armed and unarmed interventions in Bougainville, Solomon Islands, and in Tonga.

We've had an increasing value placed on whole-of-region partnerships with other Pacific Island countries, a collaborative framework that was initiated in Papua New Guinea in Bougainville in 1995 and enhanced further with Australian sponsored regional intervention into Bougainville from 1997 to 2003. Australia's inclusive whole-of-region approach in East Timor also related and had its origins in Bougainville in the previous two years. Australian statecraft facilitated a Pacific Island forum and neighbourhood response to civil unrest in the Solomon Islands in 2000 and 2003, when in 2000 the Pacific Island forum agreed to an Australian facilitated Biketawa Declaration, a protocol for coordinating responses to regional security emergencies that had been recently updated with the Boe Declaration on regional security last year.

An essential aspect of Australian engagement in Bougainville in the Solomon Islands was also relating to the learning and engagement with local people, especially women, and church groups, as well as traditional village, civil society. Pacific Island peacekeepers from Vanuatu and Fiji also showed Australian and New Zealand peacekeepers ways of embracing Melanesian customs, including an extended discussion and shared community activities such as music, sport, market and churchgoing. Peacekeepers in Bougainville played an important role in supporting those in the community who were in support of progressing the peace and also by discouraging spoilers who were passively not providing such support.

Another lesson that Bob Breen points to from that period and that builds on the work of Anthony Reagan was to recognise the appropriate utility of what is described as light versus heavy interventions, depending on the context. Light intervention is unarmed and combines police, military and civilian personnel. It is neutral and impartial. So, whilst in Bougainville, it was light, the parties were willing to negotiate. A more heavy intervention was necessarily in the Solomon Islands. John Braithwaite also says that some of our learnings from our experience in the Pacific, especially from Timor Leste, is the importance of thinking about ways to acknowledge and build on indigenous approaches to peace. So with our increasing commitment and our desire to step up our engagement in the Pacific, and in light of the current geopolitical competition in the region, and our concerns with climate change and other country specific issues such as Bougainville's upcoming referendum, it's an important time for us to be thinking about our ability and willingness to provide continuing support to conflict prevention.

Our commitment to conflict prevention and peacebuilding is a really important part to Australia's own national interests, as well as the common good and it largely relies on political leadership to determine the strength and direction of what Australia's role might be. Whilst we've had important learnings about the importance of whole-of-government and whole-of-region, it's also important to consider how we balance allocations between diplomatic military, overseas development assistance and intelligence as an important mechanism for developing a coherent strategy.

Right now, Australian foreign aid is at an all-time low when measured as a proportion of gross national income. Enhancing our diplomatic capacity, for example, and allocations are a vital way to address some of these trends. Through our aid and peace building programs Australia also supports some of the longer term local and international actors engaged in peace building processes in the region. Some of the work that we're looking at is also internal organisational arrangements, training in preparation and knowledge management and longer-term commitments to peace building.

While states are central to efforts to prevent conflict and build peace, in today's global landscape they are one actor among many. I thought it might be interesting to again share a story of perhaps some of the less well-known peace builders that we have in Australia. And so, I also am going to share a story about David Nyuol Vincent, who is a colleague and friend of mine and who I work with in our work with the South Sudan Emerging Leaders Peacebuilding Initiative. David is a former child soldier, one of the Lost Boys of South Sudan, who after spending 18 years in a refugee camp was fortunate to now be here in Australia and an important Australian peacebuilder. He's been engaged in political peacemaking in South Sudan over the years, as well as on a range of peacebuilding efforts within Australia. David's work, along with a lot of other peace builders, that often get referred to as Diaspora Peacebuilders, if you like because of those transnational connections and relationships to providing support to both their home in Australian context as well as back in South Sudan. And so for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Africa Division, as well as the embassy in Addis, have been really innovative in their ability to support and recognise the important contributions that Australians make, both here in Australia to overseas conflict situations as well as the importance of supporting efforts to create more cohesive and vibrant communities in Australia.

The way that we think about conflict prevention and peacebuilding is quite broad and it involves both direct engagement in conflict, but it also is about providing support in ways that create the conditions for conflict to be managed non-violently, or to be the potential for violent conflict to be minimised, as well as those things needed to create the sorts of conditions to build more sustainable peace. And as part of that our narratives are so important, with stories that we share with each other. The stories describe us and what we create for ourselves, our collective stories, our collective identities as a nation, and we shaped those through what we acknowledge, commemorate and educate ourselves on. How can we support, let alone believe, in our greater humanity, in our ability to create greater security through peace and prosperity, if we don't share stories of those who have and continue to work against violence and injustices, both those near and far? There are many other ways that Australia seeks to pursue its national interests, and these at times can contradict. They coexist as part of that story and our history. I'm very grateful for the invitation I received to come and be here today. I really believe that there are so many Australians who have served in conflicts and wars, whose stories and teachings can inspire and open others to the idea that Australia has been and can increasingly contribute to greater international security and prosperity throu