It was 1AM on a Thursday. Most people were fast asleep or engaged in some kind of hedonistic pursuit. I was part of the latter group. Streaming the 27th plenary session of the General Assembly, I was on the edge of my seat; every body part that could be crossed, was crossed. As the Chair rose, my heart was thumping – this was it. With 140 votes out of 193, we were in! Australia would hold a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the 2013/2014 cycle.
For those readers unfamiliar with the UNSC, it was once described to me as the “pointy end” of the United Nations that deals with international crisis. It is composed of fifteen member states who address matters of international peace and security. Five of the seats belong to the Permanent Five Members, or P5 as they are affectionately called, of China, Russia, United States, France and the United Kingdom. Non-permanent members hold the other ten seats for 2 years on a rotational basis. They are divided by region. Australia, as part of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), was running for one of two seats against Finland and Luxembourg.
We won the seat! But many people, are asking, so what? In the eloquent words of media mogul Rupert Murdoch on twitter, “Big deal! Australia gets temporary non-veto seat on Security Council … No Aussies care.”
Australians should care.
The UNSC is the only organ of the UN that can issue binding resolutions. Unlike aspirational General Assembly resolutions, the UNSC has the power to place sanctions on nations as well as authorise military interventions. Of 193 nations of the United Nations, only 15 have the ability to use the forum to make decisions. An overwhelming number of states, a number far greater than any prediction, have decided to entrust Australia with this responsibility. It is a credit to our development as a globally engaged, responsible middle power. Considering that Finland and Luxembourg began their campaign 10 and 11 years ago respectively (compared to a meager 4 years since Australia launched its bid) it is a significant achievement.
All well and good you may say – but again, so what?
From a diplomatic perspective, Australia has, through the course of the campaign, reinvigorated many diplomatic relationships that have been ignored. In fact, DFAT’s diplomatic network is, today, 37% smaller than it was two decades ago. A spot on the UNSC provides us with both leverage and prestige in an increasingly multipolar world and opportunity to expand our global reach.
Despite the fact that UNSC bids have, in the past, attracted bipartisan support, Australia’s current fractured (read puerile) political environment has engendered rather misinformed views as to the significance of the appointment. Recently, Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey said, “If the United Nations helps us to stop the boats, then it is a worthy investment.”
Apologies Joe – but that probably won’t happen (nor should it ever happen, but let’s save that can of worms for another post). It does provide Australia with the opportunity to take independent and constructive positions on matters faced by the Council. This is an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that we are not just an American satellite and, as a nation, we have distinct geopolitical interests as well as opinions on issues. In the “century of the Asia Pacific”, Australia has been given the opportunity to be the face of the region at the UN.
The make-up of the new council will be particularly interesting as South Korea and Australia, strong US allies, will have a more open view of US diplomacy in comparison to Germany, Brazil, South Africa and India. These were countries intent on securing permanent membership in the future and, as such, sought to act as counterweights to the traditional power structures. Germany’s ‘no’ vote to military action in Libya last year is a prime example. India, South Africa and Brazil worked to dilute the UNSC’s action in Syria. Whilst not, in my opinion, appropriate at the time, the effectiveness of their lobbying demonstrates that the influence of non-permanent seats should not be considered moot. There is diplomatic leverage that is attached and this is a privilege Australia will be privy to for the next two years.
A spot on the Security Council provides Australia with an opportunity to influence missions of direct interest to us – such as operations in East Timor and Afghanistan. It also provides us with a voice on broader interests, including nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and the Syrian crisis. Not to forget non-traditional security threats, including climate change, forced migration and non-state terrorism. Previously a founding driver behind the G20, Australia now has the opportunity to flex its diplomatic muscle.
Marryum Kahloon is in her second year at Bond University, studying Law/ International Relations.