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Global engagement through the UN

By John Langmore - posted Wednesday, 21 March 2007

International goals such as peace, prosperity, justice and sustainability can only be effectively pursued through a co-operative, rule-based global order, applied and enforced through multilateral institutions. Yet the Howard Government has co-operated with the Bush Administration’s relentless campaign to weaken the UN. As well as being ideologically opposed to multilateralism, the Bush administration has been attacking a constraint on the United States’ pre-eminence and retaliating for the refusal of most countries to support the invasion of Iraq.

Some criticism of the UN is justified: a proportion of UN peacekeeping troops in the Congo were seriously undisciplined, and some staff of the Oil-for-Food program were corrupt. Though the scale of these latter transactions was small when compared with the bribery paid by over 2,000 corporations to Saddam Hussein’s Government - including the $290 million paid illegally by Australia’s AWB - this was irrelevant and the offences were rigorously investigated. These faults caused the constant struggle to improve the UN’s efficiency and effectiveness to be intensified.

A more general criticism of the UN is that it is ineffective in resolving conflicts. But that is mostly an attempt to use the organisation as a scapegoat for the unwillingness of governments to negotiate seriously and compromise.


The UN Secretariat was not responsible for delaying peace-enforcement in Darfur, the region of western Sudan that has been wracked by conflict and displacement of population. In fact Kofi Annan campaigned for years for effective action against genocide in Darfur. The causes of the delay lay instead in the reluctance of African states to intervene in opposition to the Sudanese Government, the possibility of a Chinese veto and insufficient political investment by the other permanent members of the Security Council.

One of the primary functions of the UN is to provide forums at which issues can be discussed and conflicts negotiated. Failure to reach agreement is due principally to differences in national interests.

Many constructive ways in which Australia could express renewed multilateral commitment are possible and feasible.

First, Australia could adopt a more mature strategy for contributing to global security, of which reaffirmation of a rules-based international order is a vital component. Among the principal requirements for ending the scourge of war is for international society to: reaffirm preferences for peaceful conflict resolution rather than violence; negotiation rather than confrontation; and the rule of law rather than domination by the US. Australia could become a sophisticated advocate of that approach.

Second, Australia could undertake active study, research and consultation to find feasible means to improve the UN’s effectiveness. During the last two or three years the British, Canadian, French, German, Norwegian, Swedish and other governments have all sponsored public discourse on multilateral issues through commissions of inquiry, research projects, international consultation and public information campaigns (including support for national UN Associations) leading to articulation of reform proposals and innovative policies for the multilateral system. They have then led international discussion about their proposals. If Australia were serious it would undertake such substantial preparatory work also.

Third, terrorism needs to be put in perspective, if only because it can generate exaggerated fears. For example, there have been no deaths from terrorism within Australia. This is despite the fact we all know Australians have become more vulnerable when overseas. A sophisticated, multifaceted strategy is required for tackling terrorism including, simultaneously: homeland defence; pursuit and punishment of terrorists; action within countries of origin, supported, whenever sought, from outside; addressing the political repression and exclusion that causes grievances; and tackling injustice, poverty and despair through major upgrading of programs for social, political and economic development. The best way to protect ourselves against terrorism is simply to act justly.


Fourth, increases in military spending contributes little to such a campaign. In fact, they add to the dangers. The military dominance of the US only adds to the risk that it will take improper military action. US military expenditure has grown massively under Bush so that now more than half the world’s military spending is by the US: $620 billion a year in the current budget. Reconsideration of recent and planned increases in Australian military expenditure would be warranted. There are many far more cost-effective ways of reducing risks and assisting development. Restraint of military expenditure could release funds for desperately needed Australian economic and social programs as well as for assistance to other countries.

Fifth, the existence of nuclear weapons, not terrorism, continues to be the major threat to global survival. The revival of American nuclear weapons research and the refusal of France, Russia, the UK and the US to undertake not to use nuclear weapons first threatens the survival of the Treaty. At the 2000 NPT review conference the five nuclear states party to the Treaty gave an “unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament”.

The Bush Administration’s backing away from this commitment was a major cause of the deadlock at the 2005 NPT review conference.

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About the Author

John Langmore, a former MP and Director at the UN, is now a Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne and National President of the UN Association of Australia.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by John Langmore

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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