In March 2008, on the advice of the former senator and former Australian Ambassador to the UN, the Hon Robert M Hill, then prime minister Kevin Rudd proclaimed that Australia would compete for a non-permanent seat the UN Security Council for the period 2013-2014. The Security Council is the most important and powerful body at the United Nations. It has the power to bring about peace and security in the world using a range of diplomatic, financial, political and military options. When the UN Security Council speaks with one voice, the world listens and acts.
As a founding member of the UN in 1945, Australia has played a positive and constructive role in international affairs on the world stage. Australia’s External Affairs Minister, H.V. ‘Doc’ Evatt, convinced the diverse members of the UN, that each country irrespective of size can have a meaningful role at the General Assembly and at the Security Council by contributing to the creation of peace, stability and development. Evatt’s ‘Australian Pledge’ shaped the UN Charter by persuading all members to work towards ‘higher standards of living, full employment and creating favourable conditions for economic and social progress and development’.
The current Australian Government’s bid for the UN Security Council seat is based on Australia’s positive international reputation as a creative middle power; its record of contribution to global issues through the UN and other channels; its growing global influence; its ability to represent small to medium countries and because of its long absence from the UN Security Council from 1985/86. Australia played a leadership role in bringing peace and development to East Timor, Bougainville, the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan.
On balance, Australia should have a reasonably good chance of being elected to the UN Security Council when one considers the profile and credentials of some past and current non-permanent members. The election comes at a time when the world is facing ongoing and wicked security, peace and development challenges. The Security Council needs credible, outcome oriented and innovative non-permanent members like Australia which can bring positive and real time solutions to global and regional crises and to pressing multilateral issues and campaigns.
A range of factors are working against Australia’s bid for a seat at the UN Security Council.
First, Australia’s track record of undermining the UN Security Council by participating in the illegal invasion and devastating war in Iraq will be remembered by some key voters at the UN. More recently, Australia’s readiness under Rudd, to support regime change in Libya through military intervention rather than diplomacy and democracy, did not impress the wider UN membership especially those that did not support the NATO campaign to remove Muammar Gadaffi from power with force. Gadaffi should have been pressured by the West to transform his country into a democracy for decades while he was in power. It seems that France and others were more interested in gaining lucrative oil and arms contracts from the regime than in bringing democracy to the Libyan people.
Second, Australia has been poorly served by its inconsistent policies and diplomatic practices in terms of which UN resolutions it respects and which it ignores. For example, Australia swiftly recognised Kosovo’s independence without UN or Serbian approval while at the same time it has failed for 20 years to recognise the Republic of Macedonia under its constitutional name, unlike 133 countries at the UN that have including USA, China, India, Canada, UK, Turkey, Indonesia, Israel and many others.
Third, Australia has been criticised for its poor treatment of its indigenous people and asylum seekers alike. The politics that are currently played out in the Australian Parliament on asylum seekers in the lead up to the UN Security Council elections in October 2012 are not impressing the majority of countries at the UN or in the Asia Pacific region.
Fourth, Australia’s budget for international development assistance and aid is relatively small compared to other similar developed countries like Finland. Australia has had one of the most successful economies in the world for almost a decade and as such has a social responsibility to contribute adequate funds towards the UN Millennium Development Goals. Treasurer Wayne Swan’s short sighted and ‘silo’ decision to reduce the aid budget in May 2012 can only harm Australia’s bid for the UN Security Council non-permanent seat.
Fifth, Australia has run a relatively low profile and not highly effective bid strategy. How can we expect strong support from African nations when only 5% of the Australian aid budget is allocated to eradicating poverty across Africa and with only one new diplomatic post for the entire continent? Australia could have invested more treasure and stakeholder engagement effort with as many countries at the UN as possible. It is disappointing that the bid team failed to reach out to the many diasporas in Australia who could have used their social, economic and citizen diplomacy networks in support of Australia’s UN Security Council seat campaign.
Sixth, DFAT is seriously underfunded by G20 standards and its capacity to deliver better diplomatic outcomes is undermined by the Australian Treasury and the Department of Finance who do not seem to value the important role that Australian diplomacy and development can play in a turbulent, insecure and inter-dependent world. It is not surprising that Australia’s diplomats are not too keen on the UN Security Council bid. The recent Inquiry into Australia’s Overseas Representation has shown that key stakeholders including the Australian Parliament, academics, the aid community and diaspora communities are very concerned about the status quo. The deep economic crisis in the Eurozone and North America and the growing threat of war spreading across the Middle East demands serious creative thinking and high impact interventions on a multilateral level which Australia can initiate and facilitate.
Seventh, the UN Security Council is a deeply political and divided body where seats for non-permanent members are not allocated on merit alone. It is not a perfect body but it is the best that the world has at present. Australia can help transform the UN through deeper and wider engagement with the organisation.
If Australia does get a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council, this will enable it to reassess and improve its current diplomatic engagement model and to innovate for better collective impact and outcomes. Australia’s diplomats and political leaders will need to learn how to work more strategically with key internal and external stakeholders. For example, how to better manage competing super powers at the UN Security Council like the USA, China, Russia; how to deal with tyrants in Syria and elsewhere and how to meet the security and development needs of small countries in the Asia Pacific region using diasporas as connections to the world.