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Australia on the UN Security Council: An end-of-term review

Australia on the UN Security Council: An end-of-term review
Published 19 Dec 2014 

At the end of the year, Australia will complete its fifth term as an elected member of the UN Security Council, the world's premier international peace and security body. It has been a difficult 24 months. The Council's focus has been erratic, and its permanent membership increasingly divided. Yet amid the turmoil, Australia has forged for itself a reasonably successful term on the Council.

Australia has done the bread-and-butter work while deftly responding to crises such as the shooting down of MH17. In this case, Australia had something at stake: 38 citizens were killed, and in response the Government rightly called for Council action; the facts needed to be established and the perpetrators brought to justice. The Australia mission crafted Resolution 2166 which condemned the downing, supported the establishment of an international investigation of the incident, demanded that those responsible be held to account, and allowed for the safe, secure, full and unrestricted access to the site. Australia sparred with Russia on the wording (the Russians insisted on changing 'shooting down' to 'downing'). In the end Russia supported the resolution – a clear victory for Australia.

Since then the problem has been one of translating the resolution into action on the ground.

Implementation problems have also stymied the Council's action on securing humanitarian access in Syria. The collective hard work of Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan on the Syrian humanitarian crisis has been commendable, but at the end of the day resolutions are only pieces of paper. Humanitarian access has been appalling overall, but somewhat improved since the adoption of resolution 2139.

Australian diplomats have also been active on the Council's two other Syria tracks, namely chemical weapons and ISIL. [fold]

Most recently, the campaign against ISIL in Iraq has shifted the Council's agenda towards the issue of foreign fighters. Australia has been involved in developing a suite of new policies aimed at clamping down on foreign terrorist fighters, their financing and movement. These new policies, adopted under resolution 2178, invoke the Council's legislative powers, which have been used twice since 9/11, to impose binding transnational counterterrorism obligations on all member-states. The resolution is both a potential cure and a curse, and it remains to be seen what affect it will achieve.

Meanwhile, UN forces (MONUSCO) have gone on the offensive in Eastern Congo against armed groups, while peacekeepers (UNDOF) in the Golan Heights have been torn apart by their own command and control problems and the threat posed by Al-Nusa. A profoundly dysfunctional mission in Darfur (UNAMID) appears besieged by the Sudanese Government, bandits and rebels, while peacekeepers in South Sudan (UNMISS) contend with civil war and famine. This is the bread-and-butter work of the Council: mandating, evaluating, and troubleshooting for the UN's various peacekeeping, stabilisation, and special political missions. Australia's pre-term priorities (the Asia Pacific) have been usurped by these pressing crises in Africa (the Council's primary region of focus) and by all accounts Australia has performed well in a supporting role.

Pet projects

In September 2013, Australia wielded the gavel, as president of the Council, for the first time in its term. The position of president has evolved considerably during the post-Cold War era. Where once it was a procedural role, today it is more far-reaching position which allows members to champion pet projects. During its first presidency, Australia too pursued its own project: small arms and light weapons. The choice was reportedly made at the last minute, and the resolution (2116) produced was seen by many in the Secretariat as a waste of time and energy.

The recent November presidency, however, was an improvement. It was a more focused outing, which produced a strong crosscutting resolution (res. 2185) on the role of police in UN peacekeeping (see Lisa Sharland and also Charles Hunt for in-depth analysis), and allowed airtime for a series of extended conversations on Ebola and the aforementioned foreign terrorist fighters regime.

Australia's other notable pet project has been sanctions, that much over-used instrument of the Council. The Australian mission has administered the UN's most challenging sanctions committees (Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Iran sanctions) with competence, while jump-starting a process of reform aimed at streamlining the work of the various sanctions committees.

The future

Australia has performed exceedingly well on the Council over the last two years. As Richard Gowan noted in his Lowy analysis, Australian diplomats are often described as 'hardworking, well-informed, collegial and (most frequently of all) pragmatic;' and all this from one of the more modestly staffed missions. Ambassador Gary Quinlan has been singled out for praise, and rightly so, he was arguably the person most responsible for Australia's successful bid.

The government now needs to decide when Australia will next bid for a seat. To begin the discussion: if Australia were to adopt a 'once every 10 years policy' then it should consider bidding for the 2023-24 Western Europe and Others (WEOG) seat. Switzerland has announced that it will bid for one of the two available seats, so the clock is already ticking. Policy-makers must concede that a seat on the Council allows Australia to punch at its weight on the world stage. They must also recognise that to bid for a seat in Australia's group requires, at least the very least, bipartisan support and a modest war chest.

The Lowy Institute's 2013 Poll suggested that 64% of Australians believed a seat on the Council would afford Australia more global influence. On reflection, those 64% are probably correct. The key now for Australia is to consolidate its legacy, learn from its time on the Council, and further its engagement with the Council beyond 31 December 2014.

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