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Australia's Security Council presence will be missed

Australia's Security Council presence will be missed
Published 20 Jan 2015   Follow @NickBryantNY

The farewell receptions are taking place, featuring far superior wine than is ordinarily on offer at Turtle Bay drinks parties. The diplomats that led the Australian mission at the UN during its two-year stint on the Security Council are shipping out. Ambassador Gary Quinlan and his deputy Philippa King will be missed. So will Australia's presence at the most famous table in world diplomacy. It has been an impressive stint.

The main contribution has been a significant boost in humanitarian aid to Syria. Australia authored three separate resolutions that produced the biggest humanitarian breakthrough of the near four-year conflict: allowing aid convoys to cross over the border without the permission of the Assad regime in Damascus. Up until that point over 90% of UN-administered aid had gone to government-controlled areas. Afterwards, food and medical supplies reached besieged cities where women and children had survived by eating grass.

The resolutions have also established a significant precedent, strengthening the evolving doctrine of responsibility to protect. If governments fail to protect their citizens, the international community should be able to override those governments. Small wonder that Baroness Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief and, incidentally, the former British High Commissioner in Canberra, came to look upon Quinlan and his team as invaluable allies. At a small gathering last week to mark her own departure from New York, Amos was abundant in her praise.

What made Australia's humanitarian contribution all the more impressive was that it meant facing down Washington, a rarity in Australian diplomacy. [fold]

When Quinlan and his team first started pushing a humanitarian resolution back in September 2013, the Obama Administration believed it would complicate the Geneva 2 talks process, an excruciating effort to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table. Pressing for humanitarian access, the argument went, would alienate Russia, thus weakening diplomatic pressure on Assad. With the support of Luxembourg, a surprisingly influential member on the Council, and then Jordan, the Australian mission doggedly kept making the case. The Americans, whose UN ambassador Samantha Power is often cast as the conscience of the Administration, eventually relented. It was niche and nudge diplomacy: the Australians singled out an issue where they could make a vital impact, and kept on prodding the P3 (the US, UK and France) to come on board.

Australian efforts were by no means confined to Syria. It chaired important sanctions committees on al Qaida, the Taliban and Iran and served as 'pen-holders' whenever it came to drafting resolutions on Afghanistan. But Syria is where its main legacy is to be found. And a legacy it is, despite being under-reported back home in Australia.

For much of its tenure, the Australian mission had to deal with sceptics in the Coalition Government who looked upon the bid for Security Council membership as a Kevin Rudd vanity project. Senior figures within DFAT also questioned the value of Australia's membership. All that changed, however, with the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine. As Tony Abbott pressed for a Security Council resolution setting up an independent international investigation, Australia's presence on the Council proved invaluable, and so, too, the experience it had gleaned. By then, Quinlan had become something of a black-belt when it came to negotiating with Russia's wily permanent representative, Vitaly Churkin. The two had sparred regularly over humanitarian aid to Syria. Because of its humanitarian efforts, and the coalition-building that went with it, there was also a lot of goodwill towards Australia on the Council. With Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in New York to seal the deal, the resolution passed unanimously. 

Thereafter, Bishop became such an enthusiast that when Australia chaired the Security Council for the second time in November 2014, she flew to New York to wield the gavel during a number of sessions. Tony Abbott also occupied Australia's seat at the horseshoe table last September when President Obama convened a special meeting of the Security Council to discuss how to deal with foreign fighters heading to Syria and Iraq. That day it looked like an especially exclusive club. 

Membership also had other uses. At a time when the Abbott Government has attracted strong criticism at the UN for its inaction on climate change (Abbott turned up for the foreign fighter meeting, but not a UN climate summit held in New York the day before) and its harsh asylum seeker policies, its work on the Security Council has helped contain the diplomatic fallout. 

Throughout, Australia carved out an exceptional role at the Security Council. It could never hope to rival the heft of the veto-wielding Permanent Five (US, UK, France, China and Russia). But it was more agenda-setting and more activist than the other nine rotating members. It became what might be called a 'temporary member plus'. 

In so doing, Quinlan and his team delivered a punch that was commensurate with Australia's growing diplomatic weight. They deserve the plaudits and toasts.

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