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Internationalism after Rudd

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COMMENTS

2 March 2012 10:34

Tim Dunne is Professor of International Relations in the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P, University of Queensland. Sarah Teitt is a Research Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Centre for R2P.

The resignation of Kevin Rudd as Foreign Minister has triggered a number of commentaries calling for a re-calibration of Australian foreign policy, particularly with regard to the goal of securing a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. We argue that a retreat from this goal would damage Australia's reputation as an internationalist middle power committed to furthering UN ideals and programs of action.

Raoul Heinrichs, writing in The Age, believes seeking membership of the UNSC 'rests on a fundamental miscalculation of Australian interests'. He arrives at this view by firstly diminishing the role of non-permanent members. These countries are afflicted by 'powerlessness' and gain 'little prestige' from their term on the Council.

The purpose of the UNSC, according to the UN Charter, is to maintain 'international peace and security' – no marginal task in a world of 195 states and seven billion people. It is true that the five Permanent Members (US, China, France, Russia, and the UK) have a special responsibility to take action to resolve a security crisis. And the P5 can cast a veto preventing an enabling resolution from being passed.

The use of the veto by either superpower during the Cold War effectively prevented the UNSC from fulfilling its responsibilities. This changed markedly during the 1990s, where a succession of humanitarian crises prompted a period of Council activism that has continued through to the present. The fact of this activism is a major reason why 'a seat at the table' is more sought after.

Last year, NATO countries implemented the no-fly zone that was advocated by the Arab League and then embodied in UNSC Resolution 1973. The UNSC voting pattern was ten in favour, five abstentions, with none against. According to Article 27 of the UN Charter, decisions on all substantive matters require the affirmative votes of nine members. This shows how non-permanent members play a critical role in enabling decisive action to be taken to protect peoples in mortal danger.

It is easy to be skeptical about the balance of costs and benefit that accrue to countries seeking UNSC membership. What is less evident but no less real is the benefits of status: this point has not been lost on the current P5, who remain implacably opposed to any diminution of their status.

Being able to influence critical global events – enabling humanitarian interventions such as Libya, or lending global legitimacy to the intervention to halt ethnic cleansing Kosovo in 1999, or withholding backing for the coalition of the willing in 2003 – is why membership of the UNSC matters. A two-year term on the Council not only gives a voice to non-permanent members, it also enables them to use that diplomatic forum to influence outcomes that are not strictly on the agenda of the Council.

It was at the initiative of Canada, a non-permanent member, that the issue of protection of civilians (POC) was introduced as a topic for Security Council debate in February 1999. POC has subsequently reshaped how the Council responds to attacks against civilian populations, including mass sexual violence and war brutalities against children. Brazil — another non-permanent member — ended its Security Council term last year with proposals for greater transparency, accountability and oversight of the Security Council's endorsement of the use of protective force.

Brazil's initiative — Responsibility While Protecting — is seen as a bridge over an increasingly entrenched divide between, on the one hand, the US, UK and France, and on the other, Russia and China, on how and when to respond to mass atrocities that hold in the balance thousands of civilian lives, threaten to destabilise neighbouring states, and cause mass refugee flows and illicit arms trades.

It should also be noted that key regional non-permanent members swayed the Council, particularly China, to intervene in last year's post-election stand-off in Cote D'Ivoire. The intervention curtailed attacks on civilians and prevented an escalation to a broader regional war.

Those such as Raoul Heinrichs who think Australia 'is too deeply enmeshed in an increasingly contested Asia to simply put its diplomatic feet up at the UN' need to be reminded that China is a permanent Council member, India aspires to be, Thailand and Cambodia bring their border clashes to Council deliberation, Japan foots a major chunk of the bill for UN peacebuilding and peacekeeping, and Indonesia hosts the Co-ordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance, which acts in concert with the UN to respond to disasters in the region. To be involved in the UN is to be involved in Asia.

To be sure, the Security Council is an imperfect body, but it is also an arena in which Asian states routinely articulate, contest, and sometimes recalibrate national and regional policies to address global challenges in proliferation, human security and arms control. To suggest that this does not matter to Australia is to suggest that Australia is irrelevant to these existential questions about regional and global security.

Photo by Flickr user avlxyz.

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