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The UN Security Council: Australia at Mid-term

Australia’s ascension to the United Nations Security Council has involved a range of diplomatic activities that have not been as well publicised as they deserve.

As 2014 begins Australia is halfway through its two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Unfortunately the significant contribution Australia has made to the work of the Council during its first year is not widely known. Having campaigned hard for the right to serve on the Council since 2008—and seemingly succeeded so easily in securing the position—the Gillard and Rudd governments were curiously reluctant to advertise their success. Nor has the Abbott government expended much energy in promoting Australia’s activities on the Council. This is rather less surprising, however, given its very full foreign policy agenda since the election.

Australia’s Attention

Although little may have come to public attention, Australia’s year on the Council has been very demanding and without doubt led to some significant achievements. It has also demonstrated the many frustrations of multilateral diplomacy. The numbers give some sense of the demands of Security Council membership: in the course of a year there were more than 300 Council meetings leading to 47 resolutions, 22 Presidential statements and the creation of a new committee (in addition to sustaining the work of the 15 existing committees).

Australia has not only participated in all of these activities in one way or another, but also held the presidency of the Council in September 2013, served as chair of three sanctions committees—on Afghanistan, al Qaeda and Iran—and acted as the ‘pen holder’ for Council resolutions on Afghanistan. At the same time, the highly professional staff of Australia’s UN mission in New York has taken something of a lead in engaging civil society groups around key issues on the Council agenda.

Australia’s diplomatic activity during the period of its Council presidency was especially noteworthy. Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop headed to New York shortly after the 2013 federal election, using the occasion to introduce herself as Australia’s new chief diplomat. She also addressed the Council on the importance of containing small arms proliferation and securing a resolution further reinforcing Australia’s determination to try and contain the conflict and destruction wrought by this trade.

Syrian Resolution 

It was also during September 2013 that the Council passed its first resolution for over a year on Syria, where the three-year civil war continues to have a devastating impact on its long-suffering population. The resolution gave formal legal effect to an agreement which will result in the Assad regime giving up its possession and capacity to construct, store and use chemical weapons. This, by any measure, was a significant development in global disarmament.

Elsewhere the Council took up a long list of issues: imposing strengthened sanctions in response to a further North Korean nuclear test; reinforcing counter-terrorism measures; and making recognisable progress in trying to reign in the brutal excesses of military conflicts in the Central African Republic, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Australia has also persistently drawn the Council to pay close attention to the humanitarian consequences of conflict.

Australia’s Reputation

Aside from contributing to the resolution of some of the world’s most challenging security problems, this diplomacy has greatly enhanced Australia’s reputation as a constructive and capable member of the Council and the international community. This is an asset for any country in international affairs, offering the possibility of greater leverage in securing foreign policy objectives to which we might attach a higher priority. At the same time we are able to support our closest friends on the Council in achieving their policy objectives—for instance, the US with regards to Syria.

The Year Ahead

If 2013 was a challenging year on the Council, 2014 is unlikely to be any different. Many of the world’s most troublesome issues are likely to return to the agenda. Syria will be among them, though prospects for a resolution there are dim. Afghanistan—an issue in which Australia has a direct interest and leads Council efforts—will be back for debate, while the work on important sanctions committees will continue. Australia should also continue to press its interests in counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance.

Using Australia’s Position

The Council is a very conservative body that is not easily pushed towards reform, but after a year of constructive diplomacy Australia has a genuine opportunity to press for change. It will have a specific opportunity when it once again assumes the Council presidency in November 2014 and will be entitled to raise an issue that is of special interest to it.

There are numerous possibilities, not least of which are the relationship between resource exploitation and conflict; the linkage of the Council to the work of the International Criminal Court; and the relationship between the Council and regional organisations.

Decision Implementation

More widely the Council has often struggled with the challenges of implementing its decisions once a mandate for action has been agreed. Peacekeeping interventions are a case in point, but so too are the international community’s efforts to impose effective sanctions regimes. While overhauling procedures and protocols and establishing clearer principles for action have been in the sights of some reformers for years, a more concerted push is required.

It is all rather unglamorous work and unlikely to garner great political credit at home, but it’s the kind of reform that will reap enormous rewards over time. It goes to the heart of making the Security Council a more authoritative international institution that is able to act swiftly and effectively when called upon to do so. Moreover it is precisely the kind of international diplomatic engineering for which Australia has a natural instinct and talent.

To be sure there are many other issues that might properly command Australia’s attention; women, peace and security among them. But whatever the focus of our diplomatic energy, the key to success is being selective and not trying to do too much despite considerable temptation. In this way, Australia will be able to look back on its two years on the Security Council with pride in its achievements.

Along the way, it is to be hoped that the government will do more than it has to date to effectively explain its role on the Council to the Australian people.


Dr Russell Trood is President of the United Nations Association of Australia and a Professor of Defence and Security at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. A version of this article was published in The Australian and this is printed with permission.

Published March 24, 2014