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Making the most of the seat at the table

By Melissa Conley Tyler and Eleanor Pahlow - posted Monday, 26 November 2012


On the 1st of January next year Australia will assume its seat at the UN's most powerful table. It was with a certain amount of relish that Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr announced 'a big, juicy, decisive win' with Australia elected to a seat on the Security Council in the first round of voting with an emphatic 140 votes. With election now secured, discussion should turn to what Australia can actually achieve during its term in 2013-14.

To achieve Australia's active middle power strategy, getting a "seat at the table" is necessary but not sufficient. To make use of this opportunity, Australia has to set and promote some key priorities, including through coalition-building.

Setting Australia's Priorities

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Australia will need to have a clear vision and agenda during its term, identifying a small number of core issues to push consistently throughout the Council's work so that it is not simply reacting to immediate crises. Andrew Hewett, former Executive Director of Oxfam Australia has noted that those core issues 'should be areas where there is a clear need for enhanced leadership and new thinking, and where Australia has sufficient expertise and credibility to drive the agenda.'[1] There are a number of areas that fit these criteria, including arms control and the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

Australia can make a real difference to arms control by building momentum towards global ratification and implementation of an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Australia is a well-respected advocate for disarmament, and has played a leading role in ongoing negotiations for the world's first ever international ATT to prevent arms from ending up in the hands of human-rights abusers and repressive regimes. Australia is a party to and fully implements all major disarmament treaties and established the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament with Japan. Foreign Minister Carr has already indicated this will be a priority issue.[2]

A second issue certain to be on the Council agenda is the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Australia can make a difference by continuing to be a leading champion of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. While the Council has increased its commitment in recent years to respond to conflicts where civilians are being targeted, current situations including in the Middle East demonstrate that there is still work to be done. Andrew Hewett suggests that Australia should push for 'clearer articulation and commitment around the Council's role in advancing the R2P… and ensuring all military operations authorised by the Council are responsible while protecting.'[3]

Using Tools to Promote Australia's Priorities

One way Australia can advance these core issues is during its term as President of the Council when it has a significant opportunity to shape the Council's agenda. As the Presidency rotates on a monthly basis in alphabetical order, Australia will preside over the Council in September 2013. This will coincide with the opening of the General Assembly, 'bringing more than one hundred world leaders into town.'[4] Australia could follow President Barack Obama's example and preside over a UNSC meeting on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, or it could follow Canada's example in 1999 and highlight the issue of civilians in armed conflict. Given the early nature of Australia's first term, it may also get the opportunity to preside over the Council a second time at the end of its term in 2014 depending on which countries are elected in 2013. Australia could use its Presidencies to secure a resolution on a priority issue, or at the very least to open debate and discussion.

Australia can also make a difference on priority issues through participation in the Security Council's subsidiary organs. Looking at the experience of other middle powers on the Security Council, such as Mexico, this can be an important tool for influence.[5] There are several subsidiary organs where the current Chair will finish its Security Council term at the end of 2012:[6] Germany vacates the Chairmanship of the Working Group on Children in Armed Conflict, the Committee concerning Al-Qaida and the Sanctions Committee concerning the Taliban and Afghanistan. South Africa vacates the Presidency of the Committee on Non-Proliferation pursuant to Resolution 1540, and Colombia vacates the Sanctions Committee concerning Iran. Morocco will vacate the Presidency of the Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations at the end of its term in 2013. While Australia will have to prioritise and be selective in choosing which subsidiary organs to participate in, it has the ability to make a valuable contribution.

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Building Coalitions

Coalition-building will be an important factor in determining Australia's ability to make a difference during its term. Already on Security Council as elected members are Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan and Togo. Elected along with Australia on October 18 were Argentina, Luxembourg, Rwanda and South Korea. Australia will need to understand the dynamics and priorities of each of these elected Council members, as well as the Permanent Five, in order to build coalitions to promote and achieve its priorities.

Thom Woodroofe has offered a useful analysis of the priorities of the elected members serving out their terms.[7] Azerbaijan, serving its first term on the Council, has generally supported the US position and stated its aim to promote greater transparency in Council working methods. Guatemala also supports improved Council working methods and has advocated more 'realistic and pragmatic peacekeeping mandates'. As a top-twenty peacekeeping contributor, Morocco also has an interest in the way peacekeeping operations are run by the Council. Pakistan was elected with the aim of combating terrorism and interference with small states, as well as advocating for international efforts to prevent environmental degradation. Lastly, Togo has been a strong advocate for the concerns of smaller states particularly in the Global South.

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About the Authors

Melissa Conley Tyler is National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

Eleanor Pahlow is a fourth year Arts/Law Student at the Australian National University. She is the author of a recent paper on Australia as a representative of small and medium powers on the Security Council in 2013-14.

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

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