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UN Security Council bid: How Australia should sell itself

UN Security Council bid: How Australia should sell itself

It's leaders' week at the UN. The 70th Session of the General Assembly is open for business under the Presidency of Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark. General-Secretary Ban Ki-Moon is presiding over his penultimate session; next year he will be replaced by an 'Eastern European woman,' if Russia's Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin is to be believed.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and UN Ambassador Gillian Bird at UN headquarters, 28 September. (DFAT.)

At Turtle Bay, there has been a flurry of activity. On Sunday, the Sustainable Development Goals — also known as the Global Goals, an ambitious set of objectives to guide the development agenda over the next 15 years – were rubber-stamped.

On Monday, President Obama pushed on the peacekeeping front, with countries pledging over 40,000 additional personnel to the UN's 16 peacekeeping missions. On Tuesday he turned his attention to ISIS and countering violent extremism. Syria, Iraq and South Sudan have also been on the agenda.

For obvious reasons, Australia's new prime minister Malcolm Turnbull did not make the trip to New York. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop represented Australia in his place, making this her second address to the General Assembly. Bishop announced that Australia would be bidding for a seat on the Security Council for a 2029-2030 term. In an earlier Interpreter article, I suggested an 'every 10 years' policy. A 12-year timetable was another suggestion floated by a senior diplomat. [fold]

Admittedly, 15 years is the distant future. But at least the Government has committed itself to a bid that will enjoy bipartisan support. As Alex Oliver rightly argued yesterday, it marks a significant shift in Coalition sentiment vis-à-vis the UN.

The rationale for the long-range bid is that the two seats in the Western European and Other Group (WEOG) are presently uncontested. Finland is the only other declared candidate, making two candidates for two seats. Traditionally, WEOG seats are contested by three member-states from the 28 member electoral group (see table 1). The Government could have chosen to contest a seat against Switzerland and Malta in 2022 or Denmark and Greece in 2024 or Austria and Portugal in 2026.

The third undeclared candidate is the big question mark. If a strong third candidate emerges in the next year or so, then Australia would be in a genuine contest (even with a head start). 

In October 2012, Australia won a stunning victory to claim a seat on the Council. Luxembourg declared its bid in 2001 and Finland in 2002, while Australia entered the race in 2008 at the UN diplomatic equivalent of the 11th hour – a mere five years in advance. In the end, 140 of 193 members voted for Australia in the first round, placing it well above the threshold of 129 votes (two-thirds majority) required. Forty countries had informed Australian diplomats that they would vote for other countries, leaving 153 votes in play. Normally, candidate countries can be assured that 20% of votes pledged will not materialise. That is, countries will not follow through on their word. Australia's failure rate was a mere 7.02%. 

Under the leadership of Gary Quinlan and Philippa King, Australia carried the burden of these expectations and performed well, as Nick Bryant and Richard Gowan have remarked. The 2013-14 term is the greatest advertisement for 2029-30. Hopefully this strong performance will not be forgotten over the coming years.

An added point of interest is Security Council reform. If the reformists have their way, Australia may well be bidding for a seat on an enlarged 24 or 25-member Council, although this is unlikely given the tortured processes of the Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council Reform. However, a breakthrough in mid-September has led some to believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. Whether an enlarged Council actually constitutes a reform is another question entirely, although it shouldn't be.

Now that Australia has announced its intention to run for a seat, it has 15 years to prepare. A first-order priority must be the Council's core business – peacekeeping. At Monday's summit Australia committed airlift capabilities for future crises, but no extra personnel on top of the current commitment of 48. Many other middle powers have pledged to do more. 

Australia cannot rest on past achievements – in peacekeeping and in the Security Council. Genuine and thoughtful engagement with the UN should constitute a foreign policy priority, because, put simply, the UN amplifies the influence of middle powers.

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