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Syria, MH17 and the art of the possible at the UN

Syria, MH17 and the art of the possible at the UN

Australian diplomacy at the UN has kicked up a gear over the last two weeks. On 14 July the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2165, drafted by Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg, setting up a new mechanism to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria. And yesterday it approved Resolution 2166, tabled by Australia, demanding a 'full, thorough and independent investigation' into the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) over eastern Ukraine. This can only be a small consolation for the Australians, Dutch, Malaysian and other families who lost loved ones in the catastrophe. But both resolutions are evidence of Australia's increasingly confident diplomacy at the UN.

In a Lowy Institute Analysis published last month, I argued that the Australian team in New York had outperformed expectations in the Security Council through 2013 and the first half of 2014. Their biggest success before this month was Resolution 2139, tabled with the Luxembourgers and Jordanians in late February, which called for unfettered access for aid agencies working in Syria. The mere fact that Australia and its allies got Russia and China to sign up to this demand was a diplomatic coup.

But by last month, Resolution 2139 looked like an illusory success. Syria has consistently failed to fulfill its terms, and with Russia at odds with the West over Ukraine, any serious follow-up resolution seemed unlikely. Australian officials felt obliged to pursue the issue, but feared that they could end up 'going backwards' by sparking a fight with Moscow or settling for a pointlessly weak rebuke to Damascus.

Painstaking diplomacy delivered a pragmatic alternative. To satisfy Russia, Resolution 2165 shies away from sanctions or other penalties against Damascus for its non-compliance with the Council's earlier demands (although it hints that such measures are possible in future). But it goes beyond Resolution 2139 by authorising UN aid agencies to make humanitarian aid deliveries without the Syrian Government's prior consent while also directing monitors to check these aid consignments for hidden weapons or other illicit supplies for the rebel groups.

This is a decent compromise, showing just enough deference to Moscow's concerns while putting in place a concrete plan to ease the situation. The same could be said, in very different circumstances, about Resolution 2166 on the MH17 investigation. [fold]

To get Moscow's support for the Ukrainian resolution, Australia and its allies watered down their text. Security Council Report, a think-tank that tracks day-to-day UN negotiations in detail, summarises some of the intricate niceties involved:

In the initial exchange over the original draft, it seems China and Russia stressed the importance of not prejudging the outcome of the investigations. The initial text of the draft resolution contained a paragraph which condemned the 'shooting down' of flight MH17. This was changed to 'the downing' of the MH17 flight. This was likely done as some members insisted that no conclusions should be made until a thorough investigation is completed, making the reference to 'shooting down' unacceptable.

But the details are still solid, including a specific demand for investigators to access the crash site and a call for whoever is responsible to be held accountable.

Australia seems to have learned the art of letting Russia save face at the Security Council while backing it into concessions on matters of substance. This is no small feat as Britain, France and the US have ended up colliding with Russia at the UN in unproductive spats over both Syria and Ukraine.

But the devil is still in the details.

Both the new aid mechanism for Syria and the MH17 investigation could backfire. If Damascus wants to discredit the humanitarian deliveries authorised by Resolution 2165, it won't find it too hard to stage the 'discovery' of a cache of weapons in an aid truck cleared by UN monitors. And the MH17 investigation could be drawn out and ultimately prove inconclusive – the US and NATO can offer the investigators signals intelligence and satellite imagery on the incident, but Moscow will say this is fixed.

All diplomatic deals are ultimately vulnerable to poor or dishonest implementation. But the last fortnight's deals over both Syria and Ukraine are clearly preferable to the alternatives: giving up on the humanitarian effort in the former case, and getting caught in an escalatory cycle of denunciations with Moscow over MH17 in the latter. UN diplomacy is the art of the possible. Australia seems to have mastered this art well.

Photo by Flickr user Scott Garner.

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