Within the United Nations (UN), the Security Council has responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. But the advent of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union undermined the Security Council’s ability to use its powers. The US, the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation), China, France and the UK, which have permanent seats on the Security Council, often vetoed resolutions that challenged them or one of their allies. ‘Peacekeeping’ was not mentioned in the UN charter – it was devised as a pragmatic way to get around the veto so the UN could help maintain peace.
New Zealand’s offer of troops in 1956 for the first armed UN peacekeeping mission was turned down. The mission was in Egypt following the 1956 Suez Crisis, a war in which Egypt was invaded by Britain, France and Israel. New Zealand‘s strong support for Britain meant it was not seen as impartial.
First UN missions
For most of the UN’s first 50 years, peacekeeping was primarily about keeping warring states apart. New Zealand first proposed taking part in a peacekeeping mission in 1951. Together with Australia, it offered troops as part of a Commonwealth force to help resolve conflict between newly independent India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region. Although the offer was not taken up, unarmed New Zealand officers served in the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP). New Zealand also contributed unarmed observers to the UN Truce Supervision Operation (UNTSO) created to monitor the fragile ceasefire in and around the new state of Israel.
Hot and heavy driving
New Zealand’s Sinai contingent included heavy-lift vehicle drivers operating in a unique and challenging environment. They travelled a total of more than 350,000 kilometres a year across the desert, in temperatures as high as 38 degrees.
In October 1981 New Zealand agreed to send forces to Sinai to take part in a Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) group. This was organised by the US to monitor the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. In 2022 the MFO was still active, and remained an independent peacekeeping mission not under UN control. Rather than acting as a buffer between two adversaries, the MFO force worked closely with the two governments in order to support the peace agreement. In 2022 it was commanded by the third New Zealander to head the force, Major General Evan Williams.
As well as encouraging peace in the Middle East, New Zealand’s involvement in the MFO served other national interests. The Rome-based director-general of the MFO has always been a US citizen. During the breakdown of the ANZUS alliance in the 1980s, the New Zealand government valued the Sinai deployment as a way of maintaining a working defence relationship with the US.
In 2012 there were around 26 New Zealand Defence Force personnel in Sinai. The New Zealand contingent ran the transport section, including driver-training programmes, and filled a number of operational and liaison positions.