Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Alexander Downer's comments are not enough to strengthen the UN

By Marianne Hanson - posted Friday, 10 October 2003

The United Nation's 58th session opened in New York last month. Bitter divisions in that organisation and in the international community more generally over the war in Iraq have given fresh impetus to the case for serious reform of the UN. As this session is the first time the full body of the UN has met after the acrimonious Iraq episode, it is not surprising that numerous states and individuals are pressing for things to change.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer added to the chorus of calls for reform but his suggestions seemed to underestimate the depth of feeling against the West and especially against the US-led coalition that now occupies Iraq. Downer has called for the Security Council to be expanded to reflect the new realities of international politics. He is quite right to say that the Security Council's make-up and decision-making processes adopted in 1945 do not sit well with the majority of the world's states and population in 2003.

The Council has been dominated since its inception by its permanent five (P5) members: the US, Britain, France, Russia and China, all of which can exercise their veto to block, single-handedly, any resolution made by the Council. Although the Council also includes ten rotating seats, none of these carries the power wielded by the permanent five.


For well over a decade there has been a push to expand the number of permanent seats - to include states like Japan, Germany, India, Brazil and others - in order to include economically powerful states and to give a more balanced geographical representation to the Council. The second, and more difficult, part of the push for reform seeks to modify, or even abolish, the veto power held by the P5.

Downer's call for reforms remind us that Australia has been at the forefront of UN activity. We were there in 1945, and successive governments have supported the organisation vigorously, realising that Australia's security is best served by upholding a strong multilateral rules-based international order. In recent years however, Prime Minister Howard and Downer have distanced themselves from the UN, preferring instead to throw their lot in with the US, as was shown most vividly when they agreed to war against Iraq without UN support.

The problem of course is that the US stands accused of flouting international law and working with the UN only when it serves its own interests. It has refused to sign important UN initiatives such as the Kyoto Accords, the International Criminal Court and numerous other proposals supported by large numbers of states, both Western and non-Western.

Last month, George W. Bush appealed to the UN for help in bringing law and order to Iraq and for considerable financial and troop commitments from UN members to help rebuild the country it bombed in March and April. Unsurprisingly, most states are not willing to do this, especially as it is clear that the US will not in any case concede any real authority to the UN. Many remember too that Bush caustically labelled the UN "irrelevant" earlier this year because it refused to approve a war most felt was unjustified. In the face of increasing American casualties, staggering costs and lowering opinion polls, however, Bush has had to seek material and moral support from this now very relevant body.

What has this got to do with UN reform? For states like the US and Australia, the preference might be to expand the Security Council, but ultimately it does not include any limiting of the power held by the P5. Downer has said that any new permanent members would probably not be given a veto power. Neither was he confident that the existing P5 will give up their veto power. And - notwithstanding blistering US criticism of the French who indicated that they would veto Bush's plans for war earlier this year - it should be remembered that of all the P5 states, it has been the US which has used the veto most often in the Security Council since 1990. Often this has been to protect Israel from being asked to comply with UN resolutions and cease its nuclear weapons program.

What most UN members want then is not simply more seats in the Council but also a serious re-think of the power wielded by the P5. Downer continues to claim that while the UN is important, it might still be necessary to act outside the organisation. In other words, "pre-emptive strikes", based on questionable evidence and regardless of world opinion or international law, are OK and we can expect more of it in the future. He suggests that the world should simply "move on" after its differences over Iraq. Bush, too, showed no signs of remorse or compromise over his actions in Iraq.


None of this bodes well for serious reform of the UN. The vast majority of states will not be prepared to tolerate a system that continues to allow unlimited power over, and selective use of, the UN by the world's large powers. It will undoubtedly be an enormous task to persuade the P5 to limit or do away with their veto. In all likelihood this won't happen for some time, if at all. But unless UN resolutions and international law are seen to be applicable to all states, regardless of their size and power, and regardless of the circumstances of 1945 which gave some the veto, we cannot expect that body to be a cohesive and effective force in international affairs.

Australia cannot affirm the importance of the UN but at the same time undermine it, which is what Downer's remarks threaten to do. Rather, he should encourage the US to return to the UN, to respect Security Council decisions and international law, even if this means some loss of American power. In the long-term, this is far more likely to gain the broad-based international support the US requires to meet the important security challenges of this century.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 26 September 2003.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Dr Marianne Hanson is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Co-Director of the Rotary Centre for International Studies at the School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland.

Related Links
Rotary Centre for International Studies
Photo of Marianne Hanson
Article Tools
Comment Comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy