The Australian Government was reportedly engaged in an especially robust party-room debate today. The Labor caucus was discussing the position to take on the United General Assembly vote set to take place in the coming days. This motion, if successful, would grant the Palestinian territories non-member observer status in the UN. Currently, the Palestinians have observer status.
After looking like the ALP caucus might vote ‘no’ to the motion, it soon emerged that the party-room, in the end, voted in favour of the Australian delegation abstaining from this highly non-controversial vote.
Not surprisingly, the United States of America and of course Israel, have indicated they will be voting against the motion in the UN General Assembly.
Unlike in the Security Council though, the US and Israelis voting against the measure will not matter. There is no veto power in the General Assembly and 132 of the 193 member countries have pledged recognition of Palestine as a state. Despite this, official recognition of statehood has been blocked in the United Nations Security Council.
During the ALP caucus discussions this morning, members of the left faction reportedly indicated that granting observer status would provide some assistance in promoting peace between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
This is an interesting concept. The position argues that by granting non-member state observer state status, the longstanding conflict would suddenly lurch closer to some form of mutually agreeable conclusion.
Clearly it will not. Hostilities on the part of Palestinian terror groups will not stop, at least until a broad solution involving Palestinian statehood is reached.
Terrorist acts on the part of some Palestinian factions would quite likely continue, even in the event of a negotiated peace between authorities on both sides of the conflict. They would however be more isolated and not necessarily linked with representative political organisations.
However, such heinous crimes would still not be tolerable, no matter how infrequent. The point must be made too, that both sides are and have been in the wrong on this issue, albeit in different ways.
The reluctance on the part of the Israelis and the USA to recognise Palestine as an official state would also continue, virtually leaving the situation at the status quo. Non-member state observer status will be a symbolic act.
Granting non-member state observer status is however one that the Israeli government should not be scared of. But they are and they will probably be annoyed. They need to realise, however, that there is a clear difference between a vote for non-member state observer status and a peaceful two-state solution. The latter should be negotiated outside the United Nations.
It is curious that Australia will abstain from the vote. Abstention, to some, gives the appearance that Australia is basically hedging their bets.
Abstaining from the vote will likely be seen by the representatives of the Palestinian territories as a vote against their motion, since the Australian Government does not feel a compulsion to vote for what is ostensibly a sensible concept.
This week’s vote is not about statehood and probably will not provide much of a catalyst toward the Palestinian territories becoming a recognised state.
So why such a fuss?
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.
This morning the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) put out a statement calling on Australia particularly, as well as the international community to assist more in providing humanitarian assistance options to help stop asylum seekers taking “dangerous and exploitative boat journeys”.
The UNHCR, tasked with overseeing the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Refugees made these comments in response to the terrible tragedy overnight where an asylum seeker vessel capsized en route to Australia, with 3 confirmed dead, 110 rescued and approximately 9o people still missing.
This most recent tragedy again emphasises the need, like the refugee agency points out, for countries like Australia to do more and in some cases, at least something to cut down on the need for these desperate people to make the seriously dangerous journey in craft often not much more seaworthy than a large esky.
It is important to recognise that the refugee situation begins long before people reach Australia and while we can and should do more, we cannot be expected to take all of the burden, particularly after refugees who seek asylum by boat have made their journey often through and past other nations before arriving in Australia.
But this is only part of the story and but a part of the solution needed in an attempt to stop asylum seekers from risking their lives trying to find a better, safer life in places like Australia.
The High Commission for Refugees is itself part of the problem with processing though admittedly difficult, in many cases actually being very slow and leading to many refugees being stuck in limbo, whether that be in refugee camps dotted around the world in conflict zones or stuck in limbo in other ways.
The UNHCR do need more resources and time deployed in major conflict zones and countries facing humanitarian crises, but this is only the first step, however it is an undeniable aspect of the refugee situation that cannot be ignored.
It is also true the asylum seeker/refugee conundrum of refugees in camps within and near countries in turmoil is not just down to the slow action of the UNHCR in processing refugee claims.
Countries around the world that have signed the Refugee Convention are obviously too dragging the chain with absorbing the number of refugees currently awaiting relocation and asylum seekers that wish to seek protection in another country. This could be down to many reasons and the cost burdens particularly after the effects of the Global Financial Crisis and the continuing Euro crisis are factors that cannot be denied in the current debate over refugee relocation as far as some nations go.
This does not excuse the chain dragging prior to the financial events that have negatively impacted on economies around the world. There are obviously issues that have meant that prior to the financial events that have devastated countries around the world that as a result countries have not taken up the massive amounts of refugees around the world.
The scale of the refugee problem is massive and borders on the unsolvable at the very least at a political level with, as of 2010 a total of 43.3 million people worldwide who were either identified as refugees, internally displaced people (IDP’s), asylum seekers, returnees or stateless people.
No one government, no series of governments, no agencies, organisations, no one person or people will be able to guarantee that in the future nobody will get onto boats in desperation and head to various countries in the world. That is the sad reality. The potentially deadly situation can only be minimised.
The first part of any reduction to the refugee problem is that the remaining 50 odd nation states not signatory to the convention should be persuaded to sign on the dotted line, though some of these nations are where the asylum seeker situation begins and others are middle destinations where asylum seekers and genuine refugees can languish for years before making the journey to places like Australia.
Obviously another response to the issue is for nations around the world that are signatories to the convention, but not to the protocol to sign that and enshrine it in their respective domestic law and then make appropriate arrangements in accordance with those provisions too.
Obviously too, many nations could and should increase their intake of refugees and seek to undertake with the UNHCR to help with the massive processing task which stymies the refugee process from the outset and leaves many in desperation within their own countries or in other nations in their region.
These last two points need to include, in particular Malaysia and Indonesia signing and adopting the Refugee Convention provisions and the protocol into their own law because these two nations are often the final stopping point and often the destinations from which asylum seeker vessels embark on the perilous journey towards Australia.
Other countries in our region that are signatories to the Refugee Convention and its protocol must also increase their share of the processing of asylum seekers and refugees and we must continue to work harder under the Bali Process as a region to deal with the movement of people who have found themselves in dire circumstances.
Another ingredient in the global recipe to cut down on the deaths of asylum seekers is for nations to truly tackle people smuggling. But this alas is made all the more complicated by the immense coastlines of the nations from where refugees come to Australia. It is also made difficult because of levels of police corruption and complicity in the criminal act which have been found to exist in the region when it comes to the asylum seeker trade plied by these individuals and groups.
The final part of the puzzle is that Australia must increase our intake of refugees, at least by a similar extent to the increase we would have taken in under the so-called ‘Malaysian Solution’. This simply has to be seen as a reality if we really view people drowning at sea as a problem and we should.
The problem is not just an Australian one and becomes a bigger situation for Australia to deal with once refugees and asylum seekers reach our region and that needs to be recognised by other nations and the UNHCR before implying Australia above others particularly in our region needs to bear responsibility for stopping people getting on boats and coming here. Other nations in our region simply go close to ignoring the asylum seeker plight and the people smuggling that comes with it altogether.
Sadly, the scale of the task that is dealing with refugees in a fast, efficient and orderly way is astronomical and the process time consuming with the sheer numbers already seemingly well beyond reach of being able to deal with. However, we have to as a nation, a region and as an international community all try to minimise the risks of asylum seekers dying at sea.
After some time, the Government rightly bowed to pressure and re-instated live exports and promised to look into strengthening oversight and management from the Australian cattle industry, beginning from the moment cattle leave the feedlots and continuing right through until the animals are slaughtered in overseas abattoirs.
The one thing which the Government were widely asked to do was to mandate the stunning of animals before slaughter. This would have been ideal given that the animals would die in a more comfortable way and therefore give comfort to some of those interested in animal welfare. However, politically, across nations to mandate the practice would clearly have been difficult.
However, this wide array of change in the live cattle export industry has not been enough for what seems a growing chorus of people.
A growing percentage of the population seem to advocate that Australia completely ban all live exports to anywhere in the world, disregarding the fact that the right to slaughter animals in a particular way is a cultural and religious freedom.
Now, the last time I checked, cultural rights were affirmed by the United Nations and 99.9% of the time, supported by those of the left, except in such circumstances as this where people like me step up to the plate to point out this fact.
Have the left forgotten what I learnt in my undergraduate human rights major: that human rights are indivisible and inalienable?
Effectively, if we as Australians were to say, yes, lets ban all live exports, we as a nation would be saying that we do not believe people from other cultures have the right to enjoy their own freedoms, because we saw some awful footage which could be remedied in any case.
What is the problem with, at the very least doing all we can to ensure that animals are slaughtered humanely? Was it not enough that exports were suspended immediately, causing harm to farmers and possibly our trade potential in the area?
Animals have been slaughtered for food for a very long time and indeed Muslim culture has done so for a long period of time too and we are only just finding fault with some poor methods in recent years. There is nothing wrong with working with other cultures, teaching them how to slaughter animals more humanely and providing them with the tools to do so. What is not right is left hypocrisy on the issue, denying what is usually held to be a fundamental cultural right. Nobody denies animals should be treated with respect before, leading up to and during slaughter, but to deny a culture the right to exercise their beliefs when the process can and has been made better makes no sense.