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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 135

Senator MARK BISHOP (6:56 PM) —I rise this evening to commemorate the men and women of the Australian Defence Force who have made contributions to world peace by serving as both peacekeepers and observers in more recent years. In particular, I want to briefly pay tribute to those who served in Rwanda. On 6 April 1994, a plane was shot down as it landed in Kigali. It was carrying the Rwandan President and the President of Burundi. The downing of this aircraft seems to have been a signal to military and militia groups, who began rounding up and killing Tutsis and political moderates. Between 6 April and the beginning of July 1994, up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus—men, women and children—were killed at the hands of organised bands of militia. This was genocide of unprecedented swiftness. Even ordinary citizens were called on by local officials and government sponsored radio to attack and kill their neighbours. This massive genocide and war resulted in the destruction of much of the country’s economic infrastructure, including utilities, roads and hospitals.

It is important to know that Rwanda in 1994 and 1995 was a place of complete upheaval and unspeakable horror. It was into this upheaval and horror that, 10 years ago, the Australian Defence Force deployed the second contingent of around 300 service personnel. They were mainly medical personnel, who were sent to replace the first contingent that was sent some months earlier. The key role of both contingents, which came to be known as AUSMED, was to provide health support for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda. Any spare capacity available to AUSMED was to be used to assist the local people and NGOs. The provision of this spare capacity, though, was simply due to the selflessness, hard work and professionalism of the Australian men and women of both contingents.

Rwanda remains one of the most difficult peacekeeping deployments ever faced by individuals within the Australian Defence Force. This is due to the scale and seemingly indiscriminate nature of the genocide. At the Kibeho refugee camp alone, between 2,000 and 8,000 men, women and children were slaughtered and thousands more were wounded in April 1995. ADF personnel were witnesses to this slaughter. They were armed but unable and not permitted to intervene. They were under orders not to fire on those perpetrating the massacre.

The Rwandan Patriotic Army, the RPA, reportedly conducted executions under the noses of UN personnel in order to goad them into a fire fight. Had this happened, the vastly stronger RPA would have wiped out the UN and NGO presence. The RPA would then have been able to get on with its gruesome work unobserved and unrecorded. It would have also wiped out the source of medical treatment to those being set upon by the RPA.

It is a tribute to the professionalism of those United Nations troops, particularly the ADF participants, that they resisted the urge to open fire or to participate to prevent the massacre. The indiscriminate cruelty and horror made Rwanda a most difficult deployment. ADF personnel also had to match their limited medical resources with a seemingly limitless number of wounded. Many accounts speak of ADF personnel having to play God by deciding which patients’ lives to save. It is probably reasonable to say that the stress endured by our troops in Rwanda was comparable with that suffered in any other conflict that we have been involved in. Such stress takes its toll, despite the professionalism of the men and women of the ADF who were present and serving there.

Research conducted by Hodson, Ward and Rapee shows the toll of that stress on those men and women. It shows that Australian military peacekeepers deployed to Rwanda were exposed to multiple potentially traumatic events. This included witnessing human degradation and misery on a large scale, seeing dead bodies, and the obvious fear of injury or death. This was heightened by the very high proportion of Rwandans infected with HIV. The research also revealed that one in five were still experiencing significant levels of distress up to six years after the deployment. These ADF personnel are people who went and did their duty as required in the great tradition of the Australian Defence Force.

But, and this is the point of the discussion this evening, that peacekeeping in Rwanda is not treated as warlike service under the Veterans’ Entitlements Act. Instead it is regarded as the equivalent of operational service, not carrying any benefits above normal peacetime service. The real question is why peacekeeping service is treated so differently to other overseas service. The long-term effects on many of those who served in Rwanda demonstrate that the effects can be the same. It is understandable that those people compare their entitlements with those of others who have been deployed since, yet often in less dangerous circumstances.

Given this inconsistency, it is little wonder that so many of the peacekeeping veterans now feel so aggrieved. What is at stake for veterans is not just recognition but the entitlements and assistance often needed much later in life when the going gets really tough. The availability of the service pension and the gold card, for example, might provide the assurance they need. It is difficult to do justice to the case of Rwanda peacekeepers in the limited time available. But I do suggest that, when consideration is given to anomalies in entitlements in the future, Rwanda peacekeepers are fairly treated. There can be no doubt as to the horrors experienced and the effects of those experiences on so many individuals in those deployments.