By Russell Trood
Australia is already halfway through its two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Unfortunately, the significant contribution Australia has made to the work of the council throughout the first year is not widely known. Having campaigned hard for the right to serve on the council in 2012, the Gillard and Rudd governments were curiously reluctant to advertise their success. Nor has the Abbott government expended much energy in promoting Australia’s activities.
Although little may have come to public attention, Australia’s year on the council has been very demanding and without doubt led to some significant achievements. It has also run up against the many frustrations of multilateral diplomacy. The numbers give some sense of the demands of Security Council membership: more than 300 council meetings, 47 resolutions, 22 presidential statements, and the creation of a new committee in addition to sustaining the work of the 15 existing committees.
Australia has not only participated in all these activities in one way or another, but itself took the presidency of the council during the month of September last year, served as chair of three sanctions committees on Afghanistan, al-Qa’ida and Iran and acted as the “pen holder” for council resolutions on Afghanistan. At the same time, the highly professional staff of Australia’s UN mission in New York has taken something of a lead in engaging civil society groups about key issues on the council agenda.
Australia’s diplomatic activity during the period of its council presidency was especially noteworthy. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop headed to New York shortly after the election, very effectively using the occasion to introduce herself as Australia’s new chief diplomat, while also addressing the council on the importance of containing small arms proliferation and securing a resolution further reinforcing Australia’s determination to try to contain the conflict and destruction wrought by this trade.
It was also during September that the council passed its first resolution on Syria for more than a year. The resolution gave formal legal effect to an agreement that will result in the Assad regime giving up its possession and capacity to construct, store and use chemical weapons. This, by any measure, was a significant development in global disarmament.
Elsewhere, the council took up a long list of issues, imposing strengthened sanctions in response to a further North Korean nuclear test, reinforcing counterterrorism measures and making recognisable progress in trying to rein in the brutal excesses of the military conflicts in the Central African Republic, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.
As a council member, Australia has drawn close attention to the humanitarian consequences of conflict. Aside from the contribution this diplomacy has made to the resolution of some of the most challenging of the world’s security problems, it has greatly enhanced Australia’s reputation as a constructive and very capable member of the council and of the international community more generally.
This is a rolled-gold asset for any country in international affairs, offering the possibility of greater leverage in securing foreign policy objectives to which we might attach a higher priority. At the same time, we are able to support our closest friends on the council, the US for instance, in achieving some of its policy objectives, particularly in Syria.
If 2013 has been a challenging year on the council, 2014 is unlikely to be any different. Almost certainly many of the world’s most troublesome issues are likely to return to the agenda. Syria will be among them, though prospects for a resolution there are dim. Afghanistan, an issue where Australia has a very direct interest and leads council efforts, will be back for debate, while the work on the important sanctions committees will continue. Australia should also continue to press its interests in counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance.
The council is a very conservative body and not easily pushed towards reform, but after a year of constructive diplomacy, Australia has a genuine opportunity to press for change. It will have a specific opportunity when in November it once again assumes the council presidency and is entitled to raise an issue that is of specific interest to us.
There are numerous possibilities, not least the relationship between resources exploitation and conflict, the linkage of the council to the work of the International Criminal Court and the relationship between the council and regional organisations.
More widely, the council has often struggled with the challenges of implementing its decisions once a mandate for action has been agreed. Peacekeeping interventions are a case in point, but so too are the international community’s efforts to impose effective sanctions regimes. While overhauling procedures and protocols and establishing clearer principles for action have been in the sights of some reformers for years, a more concerted push is required.
It is all rather unglamorous work and unlikely to garner great political credit at home, but it’s the kind of reform that over time will reap enormous rewards. It goes to the very heart of making the Security Council a more authoritative international institution able to act swiftly and effectively when called to do so. Moreover, it is precisely the kind of international diplomatic engineering for which Australia has a natural instinct and talent.
To be sure, there are many other issues that might properly command Australia’s attention; women, peace and security among them. But whatever the focus of our diplomatic energy, the key to success is being selective and not trying to do too much, despite the temptation.
In this way, Australia will be able to look back on its two years on the Security Council with some pride in its achievements. Along the way, it is to be hoped that the government will do more than it has to date to explain its role on the council to the Australian people.
This article was originally published in The Australian