The pragmatic approach and active diplomacy of Australia’s UN ambassador are paying huge dividends in the wake of MH17. By Sophie Morris.

Security council ties that bind

Australian ambassador to the UN Gary Quinlan, flanked by aides.

Attendance was modest at the recent parliamentary breakfast briefing by Gary Quinlan, Australia’s ambassador to the United Nations. 

But that was hardly surprising. It was the final scheduled sitting day before parliament was due to rise for its winter break. The topic – Australia’s role in the UN Security Council – may have seemed a little esoteric to some politicians fixated on the imminent demise of the carbon tax. 

The latter had been a key election promise for the Coalition. By contrast, the UN role was a relic from Kevin Rudd’s days, one the Coalition government had inherited only after lambasting its pursuit while in opposition.  

“Our PM should not be swanning around New York talking to Africans,” the then opposition leader, Tony Abbott, said in September 2012 of Julia Gillard’s support for Australia’s bid for a security council seat.

When Australia won the backing of 140 of the 193 member nations for its first stint on the security council since 1986, Abbott mustered only lukewarm enthusiasm for the “expensive win”. It must be put to “good use”, he said.

Since the start of the two-year term in January 2013, Quinlan and his team of diligent diplomats in New York have made the most of the role, weighing in with humanitarian goals in conflicts from Syria to Africa.

But their activities, their incremental diplomatic triumphs and setbacks, had rated barely a mention in news back home. Mostly, they related to far-flung lands with little apparent relevance to Australia.

Until this week. 

Just hours after Quinlan briefed MPs on the morning of Thursday, July 17, some 298 passengers and crew in Amsterdam embarked on a Malaysia Airlines flight that would end in pieces in rebel-held Ukrainian fields.

As the full horror of the tragedy became clear, the government resolved to marshal all Australia’s clout in the UN to seek justice for the victims, including 37 slain Australian residents and citizens, and access to their remains.

Quinlan cut short his trip and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop flew to Washington, arriving on Sunday, for briefings with US intelligence chiefs. She continued on, by train, to New York.

Working deftly and swiftly, Bishop and Quinlan overcame Russian objections and won security council support for resolution 2166, calling for an independent international investigation into the tragedy and the “dignified, respectful and professional treatment and recovery of the bodies of the victims”.

Bishop personally tabled the resolution, which was unanimously endorsed by the 15-member council. She spoke of the inconsolable anguish of Anthony Maslin and Rin Norris in Perth.

“They had decided to stay on for only a couple of days while their three children – aged 12, 10 and eight – had to return to school in Australia, so they went on ahead with their grandfather on flight MH17,” she said.

“Australia will continue to do everything we can to ensure this barbaric act is thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice.”

The PM had promised there would be nothing “mealy-mouthed” about the resolution. Despite some semantic tweaks to satisfy the Russians, the intent remained intact. The language was bolder and blunter than much UN-speak.

It required that the armed groups in control of the crash site “immediately provide safe, secure, full and unrestricted access” and that the perpetrators be held accountable.

The foreign minister has been praised for her intervention and dedication in rapidly securing resolution 2166. Time was of the essence as conditions at the crash site were deteriorating and vital evidence was being tampered with. Likewise, the prime minister responded to the tragedy decisively and with empathy.

Less well known is the story of how Quinlan and his team came to be in the position to cajole other security council members to accelerate a process that can sometimes take months.

This story could be a case study for junior diplomats, a lesson in the importance of relationships and how, sometimes, the national interest is best served in the long run by pursuing high ideals and international goals. 

Or, as Richard Gowan, research director at New York University’s Centre on International Co-operation, says: “What is striking is that Australia has built up a lot of diplomatic capital and experience in the security council over the last 18 months. It cashed some of that capital this week.”

Even though Quinlan was appointed by Labor after serving as a senior adviser to Kevin Rudd, he has won Bishop’s respect.

“He’s an extraordinarily able diplomat,” says academic and former Liberal senator Russell Trood, now president of the United Nations Association of Australia. “He’s a sort of national treasure in that respect. He has the confidence of the foreign minister and she recognises his abilities.”

Bishop’s Labor predecessor Bob Carr also sings Quinlan’s praises: “He’s very painstaking and level headed. He’s a perfect fit for that job. He’s not remotely pompous or pushy or rude or impatient in dealing with UN processes.”

In his diaries, Carr describes Quinlan as Australia’s “soft-footed, low-key, unthreatening omnipresence” in the UN, adept at cultivating other diplomats.

Exactly a week before Resolution 2166, the council had approved Resolution 2165, which had been co-authored by Australia and outlined a process for more effective delivery of humanitarian assistance to Syria. 

The progress towards Resolution 2165 was more reflective of the wrangling, the obfuscation, the geopolitics that can dull good intentions at the UN. 

But it, too, was a good outcome, a win against the odds, after months of behind-the-scenes work by Australia, with Luxembourg and Jordan, to find a text that would satisfy Russia and China. It has the potential to help aid reach as many as two million Syrians, allowing the delivery of humanitarian assistance without permission from the Syrian government, though it remains to be seen whether it will work on the ground. This targeted resolution became necessary only after Syria effectively ignored an earlier and more vague resolution, also pursued by Australia. Rather than letting the issue fade away, Australian diplomats set about finding a solution.

Gowan has spent a lot of time observing the Australian delegation to the UN, interviewing other diplomats about them for a report he wrote for the Lowy Institute.

He describes a team who pulled off a “masterpiece of schmoozing” to win the security council seat but have since emerged as ubernerds of diplomatic processes, slogging away earnestly on the detail and the consequences of resolutions, paying due deference to the great powers by courting them assiduously and consulting them appropriately.

On Syria, for instance, Gowan says there has been so much grandstanding from other countries that the pragmatic Australian approach has been welcomed. “The Australians always want to talk to aid officials, they’re always trying to calibrate how what they’re proposing would work on the ground,” he says. 

Another topic in which Australia has taken an active interest is reforming the UN sanctions regime to make it fairer, an unglamorous task but one for which it has won grudging respect. “Sometimes the Australians are seen as sort of sanctions nerds, they’re so focused on the detail,” Gowan says. “But that’s what you need on sanctions.”

He says the “gradual, painstaking diplomacy” that facilitated the latest Syria resolution has helped Australia build credibility and trust with the Russians and Chinese at a time when trust is scarce and tensions high.

University of Melbourne academic John Langmore, who served in a senior role in the UN secretariat in the 1990s, visited New York last year to observe Australia’s performance on the UN Security Council.

His unpublished report cites glowing praise of Quinlan and his team: “The head of one NGO office, which does not receive Australian government support, observed that: ‘Everyone now takes Australia seriously. It has pushed hard on many fronts, and been collaborative, helpful, straight, competent, clear and generous. The current permanent representative and his staff are the most effective Australia has ever had.’ ”   

Gowan says Bishop’s role this past week was important but that Quinlan and his team had laid good groundwork in the past 18 months. Indeed, he suggests that Australia’s active diplomacy on the security council may have more to do with Quinlan than the government.

“Quite a lot of the time, there has been a sense that, with the government changing in Canberra, to some extent Quinlan and his team have been driving the agenda,” he says.

Gowan’s report for the Lowy Institute, published in June, is carefully nuanced. It describes a group of earnest humanitarians whose energetic efforts are laudable but who have had relatively limited influence on those matters where the great powers still hold sway.

If this week’s MH17 resolution is enforced and the resulting investigation provides some small solace to grieving families, that alone may make all the effort that went into the very “expensive win” of a security council seat worthwhile. 

Starving Syrians may also benefit from the effort of Australian diplomats if aid eventually reaches them under resolution 2165.

The fact those diplomats persisted in trying to help the Syrians – even though it would win them no herograms from home – may, in a roundabout way, have helped Australia to achieve the strong security council resolution it sought on the MH17 crash.

When the world’s powers, great and small, sit down at the round table in the UN Security Council chamber, everything is somehow connected, from a Ukrainian field, to a Syrian refugee camp, to a home in Perth where heartbroken parents grieve for three young children.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "The ties that bind".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.