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Repairing Australia's damaged reputation

By Tony Kevin - posted Tuesday, 15 April 2008

The Rudd Government has not yet shown a full hand on how it wants to balance its three major international relationships - with China, the US, and the UN. But Rudd's visit to China has make things clearer.

This visit proceeded brilliantly. To raise the subject of Tibet on the first day, during a meeting with students at China's top university (where the democracy movement that led to Tiananmen Square was born), and to use the unprovocative words he used, was a master stroke. He raised Tibet in a respectful way, and as a human rights matter internal to China. His words to journalists regarding the Olympic torch relay were similarly careful.

On trade relations, he affirmed national interest and economic interest in terms Chinese political and business leaders will understand and respect.


He made no self-aggrandising claims of strategic mediation between China and the US. Such claims play better in Australia than China, where leaders look at outcomes rather than boasts.

In his earlier US visit, Rudd struck the right protocol notes. No serious business can be done with the Bush administration during its last months. Rudd observed the right courtesies as a visiting leader, to the President and to the two Democratic contenders. He positioned Australia well to initiate substantive policy dialogue with an incoming administration led by Obama, Clinton, or McCain. One could ask for no more, for now.

Finally, the United Nations. Rudd met the Secretary-General and flagged his determination to make Australia a better international citizen. Good, but I suspect that to announce Australia's interest in a Security Council candidacy for 2012 was to show his hand too soon.

I don't think Rudd - immersed in domestic politics these past ten years - understands how much Australia put the UN General Assembly offside under John Howard's rule. DFAT officials won't tell him just how bad it is.

Security Council rotating seats are decided by the global membership, most of whom are developing countries. Australia could not afford to bribe these countries to support us (nor, ethically, should we try). We have to persuade them we merit a turn. And it will take more than four years to undo the damage Howard did our reputation in the UN. Still-fresh images of Australia voting with UN pariahs, the US and Israel and a few bought failed states, and of Australian delegates taking orders from US delegates in corridors, behind the meeting rooms and near the toilets, will not be quickly forgotten.

Australia offended the majority UN membership by the way we treated refugees in detention, by pushing refugee boats away, by anti-Muslim harassment at home, by our involvement in the Iraq invasion, by our complicity in Guantanamo renditions and torture at Abu Ghraib. We still look like a deputy sheriff in US-provoked wars.


Our media bland-out such images, but I fear they are still stark in the UN Members' Lounge. We should have waited a year to announce the Security Council bid - to get our combat troops out of Iraq, to get runs on the board in terms of our human rights, international law, and post-Kyoto votes and statements in UN fora.

Australia is now on probation at the UN. Unwise statements at home by Labor ministers on Australian values, counter-terrorism, defence, border security and indigenous rights could reawaken antipathies to us. We also require a visible change in DFAT culture, which may involve a change in DFAT's Senior Executive to pro-multilateralist new faces.

When I was in the Australian UN delegation in 1973-75, we prided ourselves on the fact that, despite our ANZUS security ties, we were not US satellites at the UN. Under both Whitlam and Fraser, we were proudly part of mainstream UN culture. We pitied our forlorn US colleagues for not being so. We would never dream of taking voting instructions from them.

Rudd needs to know that Australia has a big repair job to do at the UN, and on relevant policies at home, if we want to get onto the UN Security Council.

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First published in Eureka Street on April 11, 2008.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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