CYPRUS: Maj Gen Cheryl Pearce takes charge of UNFICYP, 2nd female commander

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Major General Cheryl Pearce of Australia is the new Force Commander of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), taking over from Major General Mohammad Humayun Kabir of Bangladesh as head of the international contingent ‘blue berets’, the longest United Nations mission still in service.

Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, announced the appointment in New York on Thursday saying Secretary-General António Guterres “is grateful to Major General Kabir for his dedication and leadership during his two years of service in UNFICYP.”

The Australian commander’s appointment came after the Australian civilian police ended its mission in Cyprus after 53 years of service, from the outset of the arrival of UN peacekeepers after the intercommunal troubles between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1963 that culminated in the Turkish invasion and partition in 1974.

Major General Pearce is only the second female commander of any UN force in the organisation’s history, following Major General Kristin Lund of Norway who served, also as head of UNFICYP, from 2013 to 2016.

With a distinguished career in the Australian Defence Force, Major General Pearce was most recently Commandant of the Australian Defence Force Academy (since 2017), which provides undergraduate and post-graduate education as well as military training and education for future leaders of the navy, army and air force.

In 2016, Major General Pearce was the Commander of the Australian Joint Task Force Group in Afghanistan, providing training, advice and assistance to the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces as part of the Resolute Support Mission of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).  Between 2013 and 2016, she served as Chief of Staff of the Australian Army headquarters and, from 2010 to 2012, as Director of Special Operations Support. 

Major General Pearce also held the positions of Commandant of the Defence Police Training Centre and Commanding Officer of the 1st Military Police Battalion.  Additionally, she served as the Australian Army’s Provost-Marshal and as a military observer with the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor (UNMISET) in 2002.

Born in South Australia, Major General Pearce has a partner and two daughters.

“Her appointment comes at a time when Guterres is making an effort to improve gender parity across the organisation, with mixed results,” said the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

While the UN has made improvements to women’s representation in its New York headquarters, progress is much slower in the field. Women make up 21% of UN peacekeeping personnel, yet they constitute only around 4% of the overall military component, the ASPI report said.

There is now some momentum in the international community to increase the number of female military personnel serving in UN peacekeeping missions. Last month, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on peacekeeping performance, which, among other things, called on the secretary-general to initiate ‘a revised strategy to double the numbers of women in military and police contingents’ by 2020.

Similarly, more than 150 member states have signed onto a peacekeeping declaration which also includes a call to increase the number of women in peacekeeping. And the UN secretariat is encouraging member states through a range of incentives to ensure that 15% of their staff officers deployed to peacekeeping missions are women. However, progress is slow, the ASPI added.

“Efforts to appoint women into senior leadership positions face even greater barriers, as their numbers are often even fewer in the military. While women currently make up more than 17% of the Australian Defence Force, at the star-ranked level they constitute around 11%. The figure is even lower in the Australian Army—and you can expect it’s much lower in many foreign militaries.”

On her departure from Cyprus, Major General Lund, noted: “As a woman, I not only had to do what every male Force Commander is expected to do, I also knew I had to use this opportunity to not only prove that women are up to the task of commanding large, multinational forces, but in addition, to demonstrate that they are capable of excelling in senior roles in a multitude of fields, both in the public and private sector."