The humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian conflict has dominated world news for days now, as thousands of people fleeing persecution try to get to a number of European nations. Some of these nations have pledged to contribute to addressing the resettlement issue, some with more meaningful contributions than their regional neighbours. It is as if there was no preparation for, or expectation of a mass people movement brought about by the conflict.
But as with every other refugee situation, this is a global situation which needs a worldwide response. But that does not mean that individual nations cannot make their own decisions about how many refugees to aid. The point is though, that all need to help. This includes Australia.
But it seems that Tony Abbott does not want to help. His language so far this week indicates that he has decided there is effectively a ‘no vacancy’ sign shining brightly for the world’s most desperate people to see. As a result, it is now laid bare for all to see that ‘stopping the boats’ is not about cutting down the number of asylum seeker deaths which happen at sea, but a far more sinister attempt to appeal to the crowd that thinks we should not accept outsiders in almost any case. And in terms of situations where a country should help people, this current event is one of the clearest examples of when to do so.
It has been heartening to see at least a couple of members of the Coalition saying publicly that we need to help some of the Syrian asylum seekers. The most striking and also highest ranking example being minister and National Party MP, Barnaby Joyce. The Agriculture Minister is someone who is known for a bit of a dislike of foreign capital in terms of farmland. The other example being Craig Laundy, an MP from a marginal seat with ethnic diversity, whom you would expect to have a more sympathetic view.
Leaving aside abolishing offshore processing of asylum seeker claims, there are three things which could be done in terms of refugee policy in this country, with an eye to playing our part in dealing with this emergency. However, it is likely none of these policies will be enacted, at least until a change of government. The three main options are a significant increase in the yearly quota, to a number closer to 30,000 or above, a temporary spike in the number of refugees we accept, or a more flexible policy which focuses on helping people from current and emerging conflicts.
A permanent increase to Australia’s humanitarian intake would help absorb some of the strain caused by the displacement of people across the globe. The increase would have to number in the thousands to have any meaningful impact and would have to be coupled with greater regional and global cooperation on the matter. This is also the least politically palatable option, which is a real shame.
One of the easiest things the Coalition Government could have done is said to the Australian people that we need to accept a temporary spike in our refugee intake. It is a small fringe element within our community who would not accept such a reasonable policy prescription. A temporary spike could last a year, or a number of years and that increase would solely be made up of refugees who have been forced out of Syria. Again though, the problem is too big to be overlooked at a regional and international level, and that is the hardest part of the equation.
A more permanent way of contributing to the management of this and other refugee events which may emerge over time is to gear our almost our entire humanitarian intake toward managing the flow of asylum seekers from current and emerging conflicts. This is a flexible approach which can be managed as new movements of displaced people occur. It also largely removes the politics as it would be impossible to sensibly argue that those we would be helping are not the exact definition of a refugee. Yet again though, world thinking needs to be aligned.
It seems however that we are destined for regressive and repressive thinking domestically, at least for the time being. And our wilful inaction, coupled with the same dastardly inaction from other countries, will mean people who are so obviously suffering are still dying at sea.
‘Ruddvention’- a word to describe the all-too-common intervention of Kevin Rudd in matters of national and/or international importance. These dalliances with the media, above and beyond those of any other lowly backbench MP, have taken place a number of times since the former Prime Minister was deposed. And the latest display of self-important politicking, surprise surprise, takes place just after Prime Minister Julia Gillard reached a rather uncomfortable milestone, perhaps for both of them- the same amount of time in office as former PM Rudd.
At least this time Mr Rudd picked an area of policy close to his heart and that is foreign affairs. The former PM and one-time Minister for Foreign Affairs today released a statement on the Syrian conflict, now two years old. Rudd believes now that the Syrian rebels must be armed in order to bring a more swift end to the internal conflict which has seen approximately 60,000 die.
The problem with Kevin Rudd coming out and pleading with everyone to realise just how smart he, in his mind believes he is happens to be two-fold. There is the policy-based disagreement with the official Labor line on Syria and then there is the distraction that it provides and the cannon-fodder it gives the Coalition, as if they were in need of any more election year ammunition. In the scheme of things both effects are minor. But the point is that in an election year, both impacts are unnecessary from someone who should release he needs to further the Labor cause, not his own selfish interests.
In terms of the policy itself, former PM and Foreign Minister Rudd, as stated earlier, believes that the Syrian opposition forces must be armed. Kevin Rudd has pointed out, quite rightly, that the situation in Syria is already far beyond a humanitarian crisis. The Assad regime has clearly perpetrated crimes against humanity, mind you, opponents of his regime appear to have engaged in much the same brutish and barbaric, downright inhumane behaviour too. This position is very similar to the viewpoint he pushed in the international community regarding the civil war in Libya, while Minister for Foreign Affairs
It is here where his position and the government’s are at loggerheads. With the UN Security Council unable to reach an agreement on any meaningful action, and with Australia no longer willing to get so involved in a far-off internecine battle- the Gillard Government, along with the rest of the world, is continuing to try to tread carefully yet meaningfully down the diplomatic pathway. Senator Bob Carr and the government want both the Syrian Government and the opposition to talk to each other. They want, in a case of vain hope, some kind of amicable end to the scenes of chaos and devastation.
This latest disagreement between Rudd and his party, though slight in the scheme of politics, will add to the library of election material that the Liberal Party has surely amassed over the past two-and-a-half years. Added to the litany of examples, it all amounts to a story of internal division. It’s the kind of thing the Labor Party do not need in an election year. Labor do not need distractions. The ALP need discipline and at least an air of togetherness and harmony, whatever the real story within the caucus.
It might be lucky for Labor that the latest Rudd flirtation with the media has occurred at the start of the year. All but the most politically attuned are paying attention to the political discourse at present. However, the story has already been written on the Rudd problem and any future Ruddvention, like that today, can easily be added to the election 2013 plot, no matter how insignificant. Any undisciplined and self-serving plea for media attention after the middle of the year would be a big problem.
In the early hours of the morning Australian time, voting for the two-year temporary seats on the Security Council. Five years in the making, we thought that the ballot would be tight, that it might take until the second round of voting, if at all, before we secured one of the two vacancies on offer. The odds were good, two out of three nominees would get up. Our competition was Luxembourg and Finland, with many believing the latter to be the overwhelming favourite to secure the first spot.
Ultimately, and surprisingly, Australia prevailed after the first round. One hundred and forty votes was more than enough to get us over the line in a contest requiring 129 votes, a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly.
The importance and efficacy of the position on the UN Security Council was questioned by some. What could a temporary spot on a flawed body, where a veto power exists, offer Australia? That was the main question asked. The absence of an explanation, other than having a seat at the table, surely added to the confusion and a lack of interest domestically over what such a role might bring.
In effect though, a short-term chair on the UN Security Council will actually mean little or nothing in the short-term and even less in the long-term.
However, while the benefits of having a spot on the Security Council are few and far between, now that we have won the election, it is important that the role is taken incredibly seriously despite the fact that there are many factors which make the role practically pointless.
Australia must, over the two-year term, make a lot of noise and throw itself at the role without fear or favour. To not now fully and actively engage with the actions and processes, whether flawed or not, would actually damage our relative standing in the world.
This government and the next must be willing to sufficiently fund the position for the entire period we occupy that temporary spot. By virtue of the fact that the Labor Party, through former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd actually launched the bid and continued with it, it is clear that the ALP have a commitment to fully funding the 24 months that we will have a vote on the Security Council.
It is also equally as clear that while the Liberal Party disagreed with the priority of seeking election to the UN body, and still appearing sceptical of the benefits of such a move, they will commit to taking the temporary tenure seriously if in government. The Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confirmed as much this morning.
But that commitment from the Coalition does not come without conditions and rightly so.
As Julie Bishop said, the Gillard Government must now, since it really failed to prior to the bid, set out a clear list of priorities for the two years we have on the Security Council.
Later this morning, after Julie Bishop’s comments on breakfast television, the Prime Minister outlined the key issues that will be pursued and not surprisingly Afghanistan was at the top of that list, closely followed by Syria. Action has already been pursued in relation to the former and ongoing commitments will undoubtedly be wholeheartedly supported by the Security Council and the UN as a whole entity.
In the case of the latter, Syria, concrete and decisive action has already been blocked by the obstructionist body, with Russia and China using the veto power . In that sense, Australia, needing to pursue action in relation to Syria, are and will be fighting a losing battle.
We must have a focus and also a recognition that we cannot save the world from itself, even individual countries, in such a short period of time.
In commenting on the win this morning, Julie Bishop made another very sound point. We must use our time on the Security Council to push for reform of the UN. That task is immense and we will inevitably fail. The threshold to force change in the processes and workings of the UN and the Security Council is as high as the bar is to actually get resolutions to pass. But this is too important to not voice an opinion on and a strong conversation at the very least has to be commenced.
The time for complaining about the bid is now over. The emphasis now has to be on giving our diplomats the resources and governmental support needed to give a difficult task their best shot. To do otherwise would mean showing contempt for the world.
It seems all too often that we hear of decisive action from the global community in major conflicts being stymied by a remarkably undemocratic voting system in the United Nations Security Council. I speak of course of the veto powers possessed by the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council- USA, UK, France, Russia and China for which the architects of the UN and UN Security Council as well as the broader UN membership should be condemned. At the weekend this ridiculous and never relevant system completely lacking in reason, let alone democracy severely impeded action on the bloodshed in Syria which seems to be becoming more rampant and bloody as the hours and days go by.
The veto power in the UN Security Council applies to all motions which are not of a procedural nature means that if just one single permanent member state of the Security Council votes against a motion, the power defeats the vote of all 14 other nations in the Security Council combined. Over the weekend, 2 nations, Russia and China used this power to defeat the motion on Syria put to the Security Council. That is still only 2 nations out of 15 calling the shots- a grand total of 13.3% of the Council determining what action the majority should take.
So what if anything can be done to remedy this sorry abuse of global political power that should never have happened in the first place? And what are the prospects of success?
It is hard to believe that in the aftermath of World War Two, the powers behind the UN developed a system which would concentrate power into the hands of few, rather than into the hands of the mass of nations. The UN was a product of the idea that future war and conflict needed to be stopped after all wasn’t it?
The good news is that it can be changed by a vote, but the good news is brief when you realise that this vote has to reach ridiculously high proportions in both the General Assembly (UNGA) and the Security Council. It is hard to fathom that for there to be any chance at all of a removal of the veto power that the entire Security Council must be in favour of the change and in the UNGA 2/3 of member states must agree.
It is certainly likely that a change could occur if just the General Assembly were to vote on Security Council voting rules with 2/3 of nations in my view easily coming to an agreement that real power should not be concentrated in the hands of just 5 “powerful” nations. On the other hand the UN Security Council voting in favour of a change is just as likely as me becoming US President- I was not born there nor do I live there.
The simple fact is that few nations, if any, currently with the same level power as the “Big 5” would want to give up the immense power they possess to dictate world security terms to suit their own selfish needs and because of the high bar for change, it is stultified before an argument for change can even be mounted.
Sadly, the sorry state of affairs that is the United Nations Security Council is destined to continue forever more. The architects of the global body are the first to blamed and the 5 permanent Security Council member states at the very least are complicit in perpetuating lack of action in many major conflicts in the past and will continue to be well into the future. It is time for this global body to be reformed and to become democratic.