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An Australian agenda for the UN Security Council

By Peter Jennings and Anthony Bergin - posted Thursday, 29 November 2012


Australia has won a seat on the UN Security Council for the first time in 27 years. After a $25 million campaign which lasted several years and some lobbying by PM Gillard, Australia surpassed the minimum requirement of 129 votes and received more votes than both Finland and Luxembourg, one of which Australia needed to beat in order to secure a seat.

They weren't easy beats. Luxembourg is the only founding member of the UN never to have held a Security Council seat and had been running since 2001. Finland wasn't far behind, kicking off its campaign in 2002. Both had actively wooed votes, including in the South Pacific. Being small but decent European countries was no disadvantage. By contrast Australia had only been running for the job since 2008. Our middle power size, US alliance relationship and active role in Afghanistan and Iraq weren't necessarily advantages.

But the fact is that Australia had strong credentials for the position, including a sustained commitment to peacekeeping, significantly growing aid donations, a record of global action on climate change, a commitment to an effective United Nations and a willingness to be constructively involved in the big security issues of the day. As a middle power with global interests, Australia will bring weight and credibility to the position-indeed that might be why some countries didn't vote for us. But now the job has fallen our way the right thing for Australia to do is to set a positive agenda for Security Council action.

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Many of the contributions to the debate discussed in broader terms what the potential benefits for Australia might be while others focussed on the ramifications of losing. And there are naysayers (here and here) who say we shouldn't have bothered at all because the UN is a toothless tiger. We don't agree. We think there are at least five areas in which Australia's expertise and experience can be genuinely beneficial.

First, Australia has a positive reputation based on the work we have done in East Timor, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere in coordinating and assisting international missions to stabilise countries which have faced significant internal violence. Australia can use this particular expertise to help build the UN's capacity to help stabilise countries at risk of failing. Australia has a unique strategic interest in wanting to promote stability in our nearer neighbourhood and a strong record of demonstrating that we know how to do this in a way that is sympathetic to regional concerns. We can apply this expertise more generally through the work of the UN and should be prepared to invest heavily to do so as a member of the Security Council. There's potentially an increased role for the Australian Defence Force here, which will be significantly reducing the size of its overseas deployments as both the East Timor and Afghanistan operations wind down.

Substantial troop deployment can be met by other member nations but the experience in running operations and in successfully dealing with civilian populations that the Australian military has gathered over the last decade will be valuable. Australia can do a lot to lift the standards of UN peacekeeping and stabilisation operations in the region.

Second, the current UN mission to Timor Leste ends in December, but the country will still need substantial Australian and UN engagement. At the Security Council Australia will be in a position to highlight its continuing needs in terms of aid in agriculture, health care and education.

A third area where Australia can contribute expertise will be to champion a well-targeted effort to harness global opposition to the use of Improvised Explosive Devices. Because these weapons tend to be made locally by insurgent groups, not enough attention has been paid to developing strategies that the international community could employ to eliminate them. In fact, and perhaps counter intuitively, there are sensible things that could be done to regulate the manufacture and transfer of critical components of IEDs-much as has been done by the international community for man portable anti-aircraft missiles.

In keeping with a regional theme, our fourth suggestion is a multilateral effort to strengthen maritime security, particularly in the Indo Pacific. Australia has the largest area of maritime jurisdiction within the Indo-Pacific region, with an offshore estate of 8.15 million square kilometres. This area is vital to the economic growth and food security of not only Australia but of the region. During our time on the Security Council we have the capacity and the interest to offer cooperation and regional leadership in the western and central Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean, and more broadly promote international oceans management.

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Indeed, as Foreign Minister Carr has said: 'we have a great issue here. With our partners, the small island states of the South Pacific, there is a lot involved in it. I understand that those small island states are eager to have us make a commitment to the blue economy.' These plans would complement with the UN Secretary-General's call for new international momentum to maintain the oceans' sustainability and improve their health during the launch of the UN Oceans Compact earlier this year in South Korea. As an extension of a focus on maritime security, Australia is in a position to promote cooperation on counter-piracy strategies. (We'll have more to say about this in a later post.)

Finally, Australia has recently been elected at the UN to chair a group of government experts to study existing and potential threats to information security and possible cooperative measures to address them. The focus of our diplomats on this issue could be channelled simultaneously into more work on cyber security at the UNSC. The debate on what rules will guide behaviour in cyber-space is in full swing and the UN is one of the key areas where this debate is taking place. Governance of the internet could change dramatically following a review of an international agreement on global telecommunications scheduled for December in Dubai.

Collectively these areas represent an ambitious agenda for important issues Australia might champion now that we have won a Security Council seat. It's not simply a case of claiming that it's our turn-Australia has major strengths and specific experience, particularly on issues relating to the region, to bring to the table. Of course one of the risks, as Danielle Cave argues, is that we have redirected energy towards the UN bid at the cost of our region. But we would argue that the longer term gains of our seat at the UNSC, coupled with better funding at DFAT, would mitigate these short term risks. Winning a Security Council seat may well be cause for a rethink of staff cuts in DFAT. Looking after Australia's interests, and those of our region, will require real effort, not just big talk from Canberra.

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An earlier version of this article appeared on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's blog, The Strategist.



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About the Authors

Peter Jennings, a former senior official in the Defence Department, is Executive Director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

Anthony Bergin is the Deputy Director for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Peter Jennings
All articles by Anthony Bergin

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

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