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.
Early tomorrow morning foreign policy wonks will be sitting in front of their televisions, the radio or madly refreshing the pages of news websites as they wait to see whether or not Australia has secured a temporary two-year spot on the United Nations Security Council. Two of our senior politicians, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have ventured to the UN in New York in recent weeks, scrambling to attract the vote of countries not already locked in behind either Luxembourg or Finland, our competitors for the two available places.
Domestically, there is not bipartisan support for the UN Security Council campaign. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd launched the bid and that has been carried through by his replacement, Julia Gillard. The Labor Party have plunged about $25 million into this electoral gamble, with relatively good odds. The Opposition on the other hand are against the bid labelling it wasteful and pointless, preferring a regional focus to foreign policy.
With the vote taking place in less than a day, what exactly would be gained by a victory in the vote at the United Nations tomorrow? What will change?
The obvious and most simple and straightforward answer is a seat on the Security Council, the most significant body within the UN structure. We would be able to say things, nice things and bad things about different peace and security issues at the table rather than from the periphery. Would that not be wonderful for us, to be able to chest-beat at the most significant international forum for a couple of years? How wonderful for us.
Then there’s the not insignificant factor of being able to engage with other nations at the UN Security Council. Well, that’s just brilliant. For two years we can have greater engagement with the world, a closer proximity that we couldn’t possibly have had without the UN. How our region would love it if we were to focus a little less on it for two years in favour of pretending we have the ability to save the world.
Australia would not just be able to praise or prod other nations with our words, or enjoy a temporary closeness with more of the world, oh no, we would even be able to vote despite the fact that we would only be there and able to vote for two years.
That vote would actually mean something too, sometimes. Sometimes our vote might align with the US, the UK, China, France and Russia. Well, most of the time we are probably going to be saying the same thing as the United States of America and United Kingdom, that’s the way the cookie crumbles, you know, allies and all that diplomatic and defence type stuff.
In other cases our votes might not align with the five permanent members of the Security Council and is that not the best eventuality ever? If just one of those 5 countries decides they do not like a resolution, they are more than welcome to tell a numeric majority of members where to go. That wonderful veto power has the ability to stifle action in some of the most grave matters the Security Council deals with. By doing so, it would render our voice useless.
So there you go. Basically we get to gamble away $25 million, win or lose. That’s great odds as far as gambling goes, for little actual gain if we win. For that price we have the chance to be great pretenders for two years. Twenty-five million dollars will buy us the right to have our middle-power thoughts disregarded from time to time over two years. But that’s okay given that we can share a short closeness with nations we could not possibly have engaged with outside of the Security Council. Then, after two years, everything will go back to the way it was. What then? Money well spent hey?
The Prime Minister has arrived in New York for a week of lobbying the nations of the world in order to secure one of two non-permanent seats on the Security Council, the key decision-making body for matters of security, though to describe it as a ‘decision-making’ authority is a bit of a stretch with decisions easily stifled.
The bid, first announced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd four years ago pits us against Finland and Luxembourg, two European powers, with the powerful and large continent of Europe well and truly behind them. It is believed that Australia has secured the support of the majority of Asian, Caribbean and Pacific member countries and will seek to focus on lobbying African nations for remaining votes. The contest, a protracted process that the two European nations were in years before us, has reportedly cost $40 million over the last four years.
So why go ahead with seeking a spot on the Security Council? And is it really worth it, given the roadblocks that decision-making processes within the body face due to the veto powers of the 5 permanent members, who also possess veto powers?
Australia has certainly has a “proud track record of work within the United Nations” as the Prime Minister has said today, with involvement at its peak during the establishment of the UN, the replacement body for the League of Nations that came into being as a result of World War Two. Our involvement was heavy and meant punched well above our weight as a relatively new nation in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
However, in the Security Council world nations have failed, allowing decisions to be blocked so easily by China, Russia, France, the United States of America and the United Kingdom and that’s before you take into account the scale of a vote needed to pass a resolution without a permanent power using their veto.
Our bid, it is true, means greater engagement with the world, but is a bid for a highly flawed institution necessary to achieve greater engagement with the world when major decisions regarding peace and security can be so easily stopped in their tracks by a small number of countries within the Security Council? The answer is a resounding no. $40 million seems a pretty high price to pay for little material difference to the peaceful interactions of nations and between countries and their people.
Not being a part of the Security Council does not mean not engaging with the world, but means going about that engagement from a different direction. No matter what happens, and it seems a high probability we will not secure a temporary seat at the table, we will still be a part of the UN, retaining our seat in the General Assembly. On top of that, we have the World Trade Organisation, the IMF and the World Bank for global interaction, albeit not in peace and security circles, but that does not necessarily need to be the main game on the global for a middle power like Australia.
Australia as a nation outside of the Security Council has involved itself actively in matters of security around the world too, particularly over the last 10 years, interacting more with major powers like the US and the NATO organisation with our efforts in Iraq and currently still in Afghanistan. We’ve also played a major part in peace and security concerns in our region, heavily engaging with Indonesia since the Bali bombings which killed 88 Australians. We’ve also engaged in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, trying to bring independence, peace and democracy to the former and aiming to restore peace and security in the latter.
So really, a place on the Security Council, a temporary one at that, for two years, is redundant. It is so not just because the body itself stifles any action in areas of peace and security, but because Australia as a nation has engaged, most importantly in our direct region in such ventures, but also more globally with the US and NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan. The good news is that we can continue to do that in a more targeted and effective manner from the periphery. Oh, and also, we might not even get there in the first place, what then? The sky won’t fall in.
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.