Australia shouldn’t give up on a UN security council seat

Rudd’s commitment to Australia’s bid for a UN security council seat must continue under Bob Carr. EPA/Jason Szenes

Now we have a new foreign minister, some have suggested it’s time for Australia to give up its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

During his time as prime minister and foreign minister, Kevin Rudd was a driving force for the bid, and began the campaign in 2008. His successor, Bob Carr sets to continue the push, but the federal opposition continues to argue that we should drop the issue altogether. Tony Abbott has promised if he wins the next election to discontinue the bid.

But have they seriously considered the alternative? Any country that failed to stand for election to the Council would be announcing to the world that it was opting out of the global community.

Do we want to be categorised with rogue states like North Korea or Libya which exemplify that category?

This debate provoked by some members of the Coalition is spurious. Such a position denies our larger ambitions in the international community and our need to take part in international decision making.

A hand in the game

The Security Council is like no other body in history. The five permanent members account for nearly 30% of the world’s population and more than 40% of global economic output. They are militarily dominant and control 99% of all nuclear weapons.

There are few limits to the Council’s authority when it agrees.

The prime purpose of the UN as set in the UN Charter is “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security”. The member states “confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”.

Given the significance of the Security Council it is essential that countries periodically nominate for membership.

Is Australia really going to abstain from efforts to achieve international peace and security through multilateral cooperation? If so, it would be alone amongst developed countries. Of course, achieving agreement amongst Security Council members is often difficult and sometimes impossible, but would we decline to nominate because the Council can’t always agree?

Surely Australia’s natural energy and ambition incline it to contribute to strengthening the Council’s effectiveness – and that is the opportunity which membership offers.

The main argument from the opposition is that the nomination is too costly. This argument is a shallow one. The bid is estimated to cost about $30m and much of that is spent on informing other countries about Australia, which is a normal part of diplomatic representation.

Stumbling blocks

Election for a two-year term on the Security Council will be difficult even though Australia will not have been a member for close to three decades.

Although all Australian governments were strong supporters of the UN for the first 50 years, our record during the past decade and a half has been uneven.

The acquiescence of the Howard, Rudd and Gillard Governments to US policies suggestslack of commitment to independent analysis. This leads some countries to perceive Australia as less likely to represent alternative opinions in Council discussions.

The move away from even-handedness in the Middle East towards support for Israel antagonises not only Islamic nations but also those countries which continue to attempt a balanced approach.

Even though the Rudd and Gillard Governments have increased aid, Australia is still far less generous than European countries including our main competitors in the bid, Finland and Luxembourg.

Australian Governments have never been particularly active in discussions about development – especially finance for development – at the UN, and that is the issue about which the global south cares most.

Diplomats from many countries are aware of Australian hypocrisy about human rights, pointing to the brutality of imprisoning asylum seekers whose rights are denied when they apply to live here. And even despite the apology to Indigenous people and substantial efforts to improve their services and opportunities, some countries remain concerned about continuing inequities.

On the bright side

There are, though, many other factors increasing support for Australia including the wide recognition of the strength of our habitual UN engagement, especially since the renewed commitment by the Rudd and Gillard Governments.

The fine service of many Australians throughout the UN system is well-known to the diplomats in New York. For example, Australia is now a leader in developing the role of police in peacekeeping.

The continuing upgrading of Australian political and economic relations with Asian and Pacific countries is also vitally important, though Australia’s diplomats continue to be hampered by underfunding.

Rudd’s personal campaigning also helped, as will the assurances which Bob Carr is giving about his commitment to the candidature and to the UN.

The competition ahead

Nonetheless, Finland and Luxembourg were competing for years before Australia nominated. Finland is almost sure to be elected as there is normally a Nordic member of the Council and its record in peacemaking and development is excellent.

Luxembourg’s continuing position as a tax haven as well as its size may constrain its support. The campaign will continue until the vote in the General Assembly in October and the outcome is still unclear but Australia is still very much in with a chance.

Australians welcomed our country’s selection for membership of the G20. We were glad to sit at the top table where global economic coordination is now discussed. Why would we not want also commit ourselves for a chance to sit at the top table to discuss issues of international peace and security?

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.