The clocks at the UN were approaching midnight on Sunday night when the Security Council concluded an emergency session on the Gaza conflict, and then immediately reconvened for consultations on an Australian draft resolution dealing with the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17. Unscheduled late-night meetings, especially on the weekend, are uncommon at the UN. Two back-to-back meetings at such a late hour involving such major crises may well be unprecedented. But with the debris-strewn crash site becoming more contaminated with every passing hour, there was no time to lose.
Negotiations had been conducted earlier in the day on a resolution calling for an independent international investigation and demanding that armed groups in control of the crash site immediately provide safe, secure, full and unrestricted access. But at the eleventh hour – in the most literal sense of all – the Russians threw a sickle in the works. At the midnight meeting, the Russians came with their own resolution. Vitaly Churkin, a protégé of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, said he had problems with 'ambiguities' in Australia’s draft.
British ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, angry over what he saw as blatant Russian obstructionism, told reporters: 'it looks like typical Russian delaying tactics. It's extraordinary that they've introduced some new amendments which they didn't introduce earlier in the day.'
Just hours earlier, the language of the draft had been softened to make it more palatable to Moscow. It referred now to the 'downing' of the Boeing 777 rather than its 'shooting down'. But the Russians wanted the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency, to take the lead, rather than Ukrainian crash investigators acting with the help of the ICAO.
After the meeting, which ended at one o'clock on Monday morning, Churkin indicated that Russia’s reservations had been addressed, but still would not say for sure whether his hand would be raised in favour of the resolution. Moscow knew that a veto would be met by an international outcry, and be received, as Tony Abbott put it, 'very very badly'. So minutes before the Security Council gathered for its mid-afternoon meeting on Monday, Churkin indicated Russia's support, which meant the resolution passed unanimously.
Unquestionably, this is a significant achievement for Australian diplomacy.
Having announced on Friday that it was determined to get a resolution, it managed to secure passage in the space of 72 hours. That may seem slow for those unfamiliar with the tortured geopolitics of the Security Council, but, in UN terms, it is close to warp speed. Some of the Australian diplomats involved in the negotiations were working on an hour's sleep. This was a round-the-clock endeavour.
Australia enjoys a lot of goodwill on the Security Council, not least for its efforts to secure resolutions boosting humanitarian aid to Syria. What made its achievement doubly significant was that it came precisely a week after unanimous passage of its resolution, co-sponsored by Jordan and Luxembourg, opening the way for more cross-border aid to Syria.
The presence in the chamber of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, along with her Dutch and Luxembourg counterparts, was meaningful and well-received. It provided a clear demonstration of Canberra's determination. It gave Australia's words extra emotional power. Though the nitty gritty of the negotiation was conducted by Australia's permanent representative Gary Quinlan, Julie Bishop was heavily involved behind the scenes.
Raising a hand in support of a UN resolution is a very different thing from lifting a finger where it matters, and the test of this resolution will be in its implementation. Russia claims it has already offered assistance, but America's ambassador Samantha Power said there should never have been any need for a resolution if Moscow had used its influence over the separatists to allow for unfettered access. For the Kremlin not to have condemned the “armed thugs” for tampering with evidence and blocking investigators sent a powerful message, she claimed: 'We have your backs.'
Since the shooting down of MH17 the chamber of the Security Council has felt more like a courtroom. Even after this resolution, Vladimir Putin is still very much in the dock.