Fears that Australia’s term on the Security Council would be undermined by the UN-averse Abbott government were happily unfounded. By John Langmore.

Foreign currency earned on Security Council

When Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was destroyed over eastern Ukraine on July 17 last year, killing 298 civilian passengers, the Abbott government’s immediate decision to seek a United Nations Security Council resolution was well judged.

Australia’s ambassador to the UN, Gary Quinlan, who had arrived in Canberra only two days before for consultations, immediately started drafting a Security Council resolution with foreign affairs colleagues. He and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop flew to New York to negotiate the resolution with other council members.

After various pragmatic compromises, including deploring the disaster as a “downing”, Resolution 2166 was adopted four days after the crash. The resolution demanded immediate access to the site by international and independent investigators, the dignified and professional recovery of bodies, restraint from destroying or moving wreckage, and the halting of military activities in the area.

Neither of the two previous situations involving the shooting down of civilian planes led to such quick council action. After Korean Airlines flight 007 was shot down with 269 people on board in 1983 by a Soviet fighter plane, the Soviet Union vetoed a draft resolution. When a US Navy missile cruiser shot down Iranian Air flight 655 in 1988, killing 290 people, negotiation of a council resolution took 17 days.

The resolution on MH17 was the only occasion during 2013-14 when Australian activity on the council generated widespread Australian media attention. But the government’s swiftness to act and Quinlan and Bishop’s success are a measure of the efficacy of Australia’s two-year term as an elected member of the Security Council, which ended a month ago today.

A review of the term shows Quinlan and his outstanding team to have contributed substantially through constructive steps towards easing of conflicts and humanitarian crises and policy reform. The achievement is all the more remarkable for the impediments on foreign policy imposed by domestic policy decisions being made in Australia.

With the election of the Coalition government in September 2013, many wondered whether the diplomatic activism that marked out Australia’s time on the council would continue. Throughout Australia’s campaign for election to the council, the then leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, opposed the nomination, arguing that it was a waste of money and diplomatic effort and a distraction from more important bilateral relations. In July 2010 he even said that if he became prime minister he would abandon Australia’s bid for election.

By chance, when Abbott took office, Australia was chairing the council, as each member does for a month in turn. Despite the prime minister’s lack of interest, his foreign minister Julie Bishop told her department: “Our remaining 18 months on the UN Security Council has to be as productive as possible.” That month, Australia successfully achieved agreement on a resolution regulating small arms and light weapons, with Bishop in the council chair.

At home the Abbott government announced unprecedented cuts to aid, totalling about a third of spending.

Nonetheless, and despite other policies on issues such as climate change and asylum seekers dramatically undermining the diplomatic effort, the change of government made little difference to Australia’s UN activity.

Quinlan has said, “Australia came on to the council convinced that elected members should contribute across the whole council agenda.” This involved being well prepared for each issue, seeking copies of the draft text of resolutions and presidential statements in advance, being in the room for all negotiations, and often proposing concrete changes considered to be of benefit to collective security.

Such efforts were extremely demanding: the council met 263 times in 2014, more than ever before. Australia’s participation was considerable. For example, Australia was among the supporters for the introduction of robust peacekeeping in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A resolution in March 2013 included establishment of an intervention brigade to initiate military action against the rebels. There were similar peacekeeping enforcement measures in a resolution on Mali.

Australia co-operated with US ambassador Samantha Power in urging swifter and more decisive action to address the brutal anarchy in the Central African Republic in 2013 and 2014 than an earlier council stalemate had allowed.

The Australian mission also had responsibility for drafting the resolution adopted in December 2014, welcoming the Afghanistan–NATO agreement to replace the International Security Assistance Force with a continuing international support presence, the Resolute Support Mission.

At Australia’s initiative, 10 council members joined in requesting that human rights in North Korea be added to the council’s agenda and that a meeting be held to discuss the issue. This procedural motion – which is not subject to a veto – was adopted despite opposition by Russia and China.

At the beginning of 2013, Australia was appointed to chair three subsidiary committees supervising sanctions regimes on al-Qaeda and associated individuals and entities, sanctions related to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities, and sanctions related to the Taliban.

The principal criticism of the Security Council in recent years has been its failure to take decisive action on Syria. Quinlan describes the Syrian civil war as “the world’s greatest current humanitarian disaster”. But the only progress had been agreement and successful implementation of a resolution requiring Syria to destroy its chemical weapons. That resolution opened the way for a council presidential statement in October 2013 on humanitarian access to Syria, for which Australia and Luxembourg had been campaigning for several months. 

During 2014 the council met 29 times about Syria, often because of the unrelenting obstruction of humanitarian action by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan continued to advocate action, successfully leading the council to adopt three more resolutions.

In February the council demanded access for humanitarian workers across conflict lines, in besieged areas and across borders. A resolution in July authorised delivery of aid across specific borders and conflict lines without Syrian consent, and in December these provisions were extended for another year.

The UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, reported late in the year that there had been some improvement in aid deliveries and access to particularly deprived areas. Australian diplomats led the way in keeping this issue actively on the council’s agenda – yet Abbott government actions have directly undermined implementation.

Amos, who will retire soon after heroic service, recently described “brutality, violence and callous disregard for human life” as the hallmark of the Syrian crisis. “The death toll is conservatively estimated at 200,000 people. There are 7.6 million internally displaced persons and 12.2 million require humanitarian assistance.” Major emergency relief is desperately needed. However, Oxfam estimates that if Australia were contributing a fair share of the crisis assistance needed in Syria, we would have given $106 million in 2014. Instead we gave $30 million.

Australia’s second time chairing the council, in November 2014, oversaw further diplomatic achievements, as Bishop led the adoption of a resolution on the use of police in peacekeeping, and the passage of presidential statements on counterterrorism and Ebola.

Some people might question whether these issues are relevant to the national interest. But as former foreign minister Gareth Evans argues, “There is a hard-headed return for any state in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen, respecting international law and actively engaged in finding co-operative solutions to problems.”

During the wrap-up for November 2014 there was more than polite praise from many countries for the leadership of Quinlan and his team. South Korea said that Australia had set a new standard for efficient work by the council. Nigeria and several other countries said that the first standalone resolution on police was a notable achievement.

France remarked that the month had been like participating in a New York marathon. Russia regretted that monthly wrap-up sessions had become the norm but said that Australia had organised the heavy month effectively. When interviewed at the end of December, the British ambassador said that Australia had the greatest impact of any elected member during the past five years, and others commented that the Australian diplomats were bold risk-takers who stood up for global values and interests.

Elected members are principally constrained by the power of the five permanent members, but each can have significant influence if given adequate support from their government. Australia’s time at the table, with Quinlan at the helm and latterly in partnership with Bishop, can be judged a success. It remains to be seen whether the Abbott government’s tendency to be sceptical of the UN will now return to the fore without the spotlight of the Security Council membership it inherited.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 31, 2015 as "Foreign currency".

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John Langmore is a professorial fellow at the Melbourne School of Government. He is a former UN director and ALP federal MP.

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