Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Australia in the UN Security Council: Non-cynical reflections

Security Council meeting on Afghanistan, Sept 2012, UN Photos/Eskinder Debebe

On October 18, in the 67th session of the UN General Assembly, the United Nations will vote on whether Australia will take up one of the non-permanent seats on offer over 2013-14 at the United Nations Security Council. Australia is in (somewhat oddly, somewhat sensibly) the ‘Western European and Others Group’, which has two seats available in this vote. Australia will be vying against Finland and Luxembourg.

It is easy to be a little cynical about Australia’s bid, and its potential significance. The first thing I asked myself, when I heard of the bid, was whether I thought there was any major issue where Australia’s vote would realistically diverge from that of the United States (and, relatedly, that of the United Kingdom). If Australia was to be no more than a ‘yes-man’ to the US, who already hold veto-power in the Council, then it was hard to understand what real contribution it would make to the Security Council decision-making. And I doubted whether Australia would in fact vote against the US position on any major matters of international security – for much the same reasons as Australia played a role in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. At least when it comes to issues of national and international security, Australia takes its relationship to the US very seriously.

But, on reflection, I think this was the wrong question to ask. I think the important question is this: 

Would Australia be willing and able to impact on the wording of UN resolutions that are proposed by the Western bloc (US, UK, France)? 

And I think the answer to this question is ‘yes’.

The first thing to note is that the specific wording of UN Security Council resolutions is incredibly important – perhaps moreso now than ever before. A matter of word-selection can make the difference between a military action being legal under international law or not (as has occurred in the context of the recent Iraq war, where arguments either way depend on the briefest sentences in two or three resolutions). Resolution minutiae can make the difference between vital action occurring or not occurring.  Action by the peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1994 was stymied, in part at least, because the operation there was directed to contribute to the security and protection of civilians, rather than to provide security or protect civilians. The difference in wording can seem tiny – but the ramifications can be huge.

What would Australia have to offer, in this respect? Both because it is a ‘middle power’, and because of its actual location on the globe, Australia can have more reason to avoid striking a belligerent tone on matters of international security than the US or UK. Its middle power status makes it more sensitive of the need to compromise, and for the need for sensitivity for the concerns of other nations and peoples. It is these traits – which I think are evinced particularly in the role Australia has played in international peacekeeping for some time – that can make it a valuable contributor to the Council.

Moreover, Australia has very different neighbours to most of the other Western bloc countries. In a way, Australia’s inclusion on the Security Council effectively gets another representative for the Asia-Pacific area onto the Council. As well as helping bring to international attention various issues that are relevant to the region, it seems to me there is good reason to believe that Australia will try to nuance its behaviour on the Security Council in a manner that enhances, rather than detracts, from its relations with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and so on.

Ultimately, Australia is in an almost unique position (alongside New Zealand) in terms of its politics and positioning on the globe. While it unquestionably shares its fundamental values with the West, its dialogue and relations with its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region make it sensitive to concerns that are less likely to be felt by Western European nations. And because of the structure of the voting in the Security Council, members that inject a spirit of compromise into resolutions can mean the difference between Council paralysis and action.

The question, then, is not whether or not Australia would take a stand against the US or UK on any important proposed resolution, but whether it would impact on the text of resolutions in a productive and sensitive manner.

I think the answer to that question could be ‘yes’.

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