War and peace: Australia’s enormous September at the UN

Foreign minister Julie Bishop addresses the UN general assembly in New York. This session has been among the most tumultuous in recent memory. EPA/Mary Altaffer

September 2013 has been an extraordinary month for Australia to chair the UN Security Council. A month that began with threats of a new war in Syria is ending with substantial steps towards peace in three areas of conflict. It has been a truly astonishing period, and one I have witnessed first hand from New York.

At 8.20pm on Friday the 27th, the Security Council met formally in the packed council chamber. The draft resolution on Syria and chemical weapons was put to the vote by the chair, Australia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Gary Quinlan. The resolution includes Annex 1 which is the text of a decision by Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which the OPCW in Geneva adopted during the afternoon. All the members of the council co-sponsored the resolution and all 15 raised their hands in favour of Resolution 2118.

The resolution not only requires the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, but it also calls for the convening of the Geneva II peace talks and endorses the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers. So not only has the outrage about use of chemical weapons led to a unified demand for their destruction but it has also motivated action to attempt a political resolution of the civil war.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke after the vote and said that this is the most hopeful news for Syria for a couple of years.

The first results can be expected by next week…Today’s decision by the OPCW sets ambitious but realistic targets…The UN team of inspectors will be dispatched on Tuesday.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry explained their positions and thanked each other. Other foreign ministers endorsed the decision, with France’s Laurent Fabius emphasising that:

One resolution will not save Syria. We must bring to an end the martyrdom of the Syrian people.

That the international community could arrive at this point is nothing short of astounding, given September opened with president Obama on the verge of launching military action against the Assad regime in Syria, after he said it crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21.

But Obama was not winning sufficient domestic or international support for a politically defensible military strike on Syria. So he needed political support and on September 7 adopted the democratic tactic of asking Congress for authorisation. He sent his staff out as passionate advocates for a strike. There was little evidence that the Administration had looked for alternatives to war. Security Council deadlock was described as sufficient justification for American military action. Diplomatic imagination seemed to have no role.

Then on September 9, Kerry, in a seemingly off the cuff remark, said that Syria could avoid a US attack by turning “over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week”. Within four hours Lavrov responded that he would propose to Assad that he hand over his chemical weapons to the international community for destruction.

Obama swiftly suspended the proposed strike and supported negotiations with Russia. Not only was the missile strike indefinitely postponed but the Congressional vote could also be suspended. The following week saw Kerry and Lavrov meeting in Geneva.

The striking, rarely publicised fact, is that this option had been informally discussed for a year. It was first raised at the G20 Summit in Mexico in 2012. Kerry and Lavrov had talked about it several times during 2012 and 2013. Putin and Obama had discussed it briefly at St Petersburg. European foreign ministers had talked with Kerry about it the day before. US officials thought it wouldn’t work unless Russia persuaded Assad to negotiate, and presumed that they could not. Putin however invited the Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem to Moscow to do just that

Kerry and Lavrov reached agreement quickly, and their announcement was an unprecedented breakthrough. It was a detailed plan for the speedy accounting, inspection, control, and elimination of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, with provision for enforcement by the UN Security Council.

The Syrians immediately took the first required action by sending a letter to the UN Secretary-General acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention. A week later they provided the OPCW with a list of sites where their chemical weapons are located.

A US warship in the Mediterranean fires a Tomahawk missile. Events in New York this month have seen the chances of US strikes on Syria fade while tension over Iran’s nuclear program, another potential military flashpoint, have also dramatically lessened. EPA/Woody Shag Paschall

Negotiation between the US and Russia of a Security Council resolution began immediately. President Obama focused his major address to the opening session of the 68th UN General Assembly on the Middle East, beginning with Syria. On September 26, the five permanent members of the Security Council agreed on a resolution which was passed unanimously at the council on the evening of 27th.

The resolution is a compromise, as is most successful diplomacy. It leaves out automatic repercussions if Syria fails to comply with the text’s obligations, but authorises the council to consider further steps if Syria falls short of requirements. Preventive diplomacy has been more effective than would have illegal military aggression.

The second potentially peacemaking action has been tentative renewal of diplomatic contact between the US and Iran. There has been a week of hectic diplomacy during the Leaders Week at the opening of the 68th United Nations General Assembly. This culminated in an agreement at foreign minister level to begin negotiations in November about Iran’s nuclear program; and with a phone call between president Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani – the first direct conversation of the two countries’ presidents since 1979.

One of the responsibilities given to Australia when it was elected to the Security Council was chairing of the subsidiary committee overseeing the Security Council’s sanctions imposed on Iran to pressure them to refrain from developing a nuclear weapon. Therefore if the US and Iran agree on ways to guarantee Iranian nuclear restraint, Australia will become directly involved in changing the sanctions regime.

The third significant event was the adoption of the first Security Council resolution ever on small arms and light weapons (SALW) at a special meeting called by Australia as council president. Australia circulated a concept note in early September on its rationale for using its opportunity as council president to convene a high-level meeting on SALW. It has been five years since the council discussed this threat “in a dedicated way”. Australia proposed adoption of a resolution, which would be the first ever by the council on this subject.

Intensive almost daily private negotiations about the resolution between national experts have been under way for over two weeks. At the special meeting on Thursday the 26th, the resolution was supported by 14 of the members, with only Russia abstaining. This was because the resolution didn’t limit the capacity of governments to provide arms to non-state actors – one of Russia’s disagreements with the US over Syria.

The resolution committed the council to addressing the illicit transfer, destabilising accumulation and misuse’ of SALW and establishes practical steps to strengthen the council’s response. For example it calls on states to support weapons collection, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programs and stockpile management.

Each of these three diplomatic achievements which climaxed during the last week of September are substantial advances towards peaceful resolution of major conflicts.

Each exemplifies the United Nations fulfilling its prime purpose of conflict resolution.

And Australian diplomats at the UN have or will be actively and skilfully engaged in each of them.