Australia has been elected to a seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for 2013-2014. Our victory was remarkable because we comfortably defeated two European candidates, Luxembourg and Finland, both of whom could automatically count on solid European support. While voting is secret, it is likely that our support was broadly-based but importantly included countries in our region.
Our victory was also remarkable for the way in which our campaign for election to the Council was characterised by an unusual level of division within the Australian political elite and the mix of enthusiasm and cynicism that greeted the result. This is disappointing because the election to the 15-member Council was a significant recognition by other countries of our standing as a responsible and constructive member of the United Nations (UN). It is also an important opportunity for Australia to make a positive contribution to major issues facing the international community.
A challenging agenda
The range of issues demanding Security Council attention is immense. A review of the November Security Council Report lists issues as diverse as Somalia, the Congo, Western Sahara, Lebanon, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, North Korea and Timor-Leste as requiring action. In addition, more general questions of 'protection of civilians in conflict', 'women, peace and security', the 'rule of law' and climate change are subject to Council attention.
Australia enters its new term with a strong record in key areas in which the UN is engaged, such as peace-keeping and foreign aid. We are known to support an open trading regime and our economic management record and position in the Asia-Pacific region give us a valued perspective on many issues.
As a member of the UNSC, Australia will be asked to take positions on issues even though they may not concern us directly. These issues are significant in terms of international peace and security and will be important to countries that supported our candidacy. We are, for example, not directly involved in the concerns of the Andean countries as they struggle to resolve issues of terrorism and drugs. As a Council member, however, Australia has standing in debates on those issues. And we will be heard, provided we contribute wisely and reasonably.
Security Council reform
A particularly challenging issue will be that of Security Council reform. There is a widespread view that the Council has been failing in its prime responsibility - to maintain international peace and security. Rwanda, Iraq and Syria are often cited as evidence of this. The blame for this situation lies in part in the structure of the Council itself. The five 'permanent members' – Russia, France, Britain, China and the United States – are guaranteed a place in the Council and can protect their interests through resort to the veto power. The Council no longer reflects the changed balance of power in the world but, by virtue of their special status, these countries have been able to prevent action on issues that do not agree with their national interests.
Russia, China and the United States are particularly guilty in this respect. Instead of acting in the 'common good', these countries have sought to frustrate UN action on issues such as illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the civil war in Syria and climate change.
This is a potential challenge for Australia because the United States is one of the most determined opponents of reform of the UN Charter and the Security Council. The US has also taken positions on a number of issues in defiance of the clear will of the international community.
We are, however, on record as strongly supporting major reform of the Security Council. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website: