Australia in the Security Council – how to make it count

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr with Ambassador Charles Thembani Ntwaagae, Permanent Representative of Botswana to the UN (Photograph: Rick Bajornas).  Source:

On 18 October 2012, the Sixty-Seventh Session of the United Nations General Assembly voted to appoint five Member States to a two-year non-permanent term on the United Nations Security Council.

Argentina, Australia, Luxembourg, Rwanda and South Korea will replace outgoing South Africa, Colombia, Germany, India and Portugal. Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Pakistan, Togo and Morocco will remain until the end of 2013.

The UN Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for international peace and security.  The Charter gives the Council wide discretion to determine its own agenda and Articles 41 and 42 awards the Council a very broad range of measures to use in pursuit of its primary responsibility. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the Council’s decisions are not subject to judicial review.

Today, the Council has a packed agenda. Its members meet on an almost daily basis; diplomats of Council members converse informally several times a day. As we write major issues on the Council’s agenda include the continuing situation in Syria that will be familiar to most Australians, but a host of others.

Not least, the Council is responsible for mandating and overseeing sixteen UN peacekeeping operations, with around 120,000 uniformed personnel deployed around the world. All of these missions need to be closely monitored by Council members, with particular attention paid to hotspots such as eastern DRC, South Sudan and Darfur. Seven UN peacekeepers have been violently killed in these countries in the past month alone.

One of the situations not relating to UN peacekeeping (yet) on the Council’s agenda is that in Mali. The Toureg rebellion in northern Mali has provoked widespread displacement and there are concerns that the Islamist rebels might target vulnerable groups (recent reports are that unmarried mothers are being singled out by the rebels); the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has proposed intervention to support the government of Mali and invited the Council’s support. The Council must decide whether ECOWAS has a viable strategy, what it would take to protect civilians and build peace in Mali, what sort of exit strategy is needed, and the best way of navigating around Mali’s complex politics. A similar set of questions and challenges are evident in Somalia, too.

But the deployment of force is not all the Security Council does: it deals with the whole range of international security issues, including terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; it protects the international rule of law; it fosters an end to impunity with its power to refer situations to the International Criminal Court; it can manage, limit and prevent the flow of arms; protect and promote the specific rights of children in armed conflict, fight against terrorism. It has also championed new ways of thinking about – and practicing – international politics in relation to the protection of civilians in armed conflict, climate change, displacement, the empowerment of women in relation to armed conflict and much more besides.

As a price tag for persuading the world to grant Australia a seat at this table, $25 million since 2007 to secure what one called a ‘big, juicy decisive win’ is money very well spent. Indeed, as the Foreign Minister, it is money that should have been spent anyway in pursuit of the promotion and building of core values and support for others less fortunate. Claims that the bid has skewed or inflated Australia’s foreign aid are well off base and not consistent with basic facts. Most notably, that the pledge to increase Australia’s foreign aid budget occurred well before the Council bid. Indeed, it was Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer who promised to raise foreign aid to 0.5% of GDP to meet Australia’s obligations towards the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. The fact that Australia now sits around 0.33% would suggest that there has been no dramatic Council induced aid spend.

Diplomats and others were surprised that Australia secured 140 votes, winning election in the first round of voting by a margin of 11. Even the most optimistic among them believed that it would be much tighter.  Both Luxembourg (who was also elected) and Finland (who was not) presented very strong cases. Member states that voted Australia have done so with the expectation that it will be a responsible and innovative member of the Security Council that will work hard to deliver on some of the key policy areas that have characterized Australia’s engagement with the UN in recent years: strong support for the Responsibility to Protect, the promotion and development of the protection of civilians, the empowerment of women and protection of women’s rights, the strengthening of global arms control (especially in relation to small arms and WMD), the strengthening of UN peacekeeping, the building of international policing capacity, the strengthening of assistance to states and societies, and the strengthening of peacebuilding.

Having won the election, thought now turns to what Australia should do with it. Part of the job, of course, will be contributing to the day-to-day management responsibilities of the Council. But non-permanent members can leave an indelible mark: in the 1990s, Venezuela created a new meeting format that allowed the Council to consult with civil society groups and others; these so-called ‘Arria meetings’ provided the setting for one of the Council’s first discussions about the conflict in Darfur more than a decade later; Canada’s tenure in 1999-2000 bestowed the Council with an ongoing thematic engagement with the protection of civilians which has delivered many practical advances and various methods for significantly improving the effectiveness of sanctions and embargoes.  Australia will, of course, have the honour of serving as Council president.  Unusually, by virtue of alphabetical order it will get this privilege twice – in August 2013 and late 2014.

We want to end by highlighting five things in particular that Australia could prioritise and that would make a lasting impression. In no particular order, they are:

First, promote measures to strengthen the limitation and control of arms, especially through an arms trade treaty.  Advancing progress on the arms control treaty was one of the key goals emphasized by Australia as part of its bid. Clearly, Australian advocacy on this issue played a major role in securing votes in conflict affected regions of the world. Australia has a good track record on this issue and is a good position to argue for a meaningful treaty.  In addition, the Council seat gives Australia to advance thinking and practice on related issues, especially:

  • Strengthening implementation of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons;
  • Developing measures to strengthen compliance with Security Council imposed arms embargoes that binds states to the implementation of laws and regulations surrounding the sale and purchase of small weapons, including firearms, and the enforcement of sanctions on weapon providers, buyers and transport carriers to prevent the escalation of ongoing conflicts.

Second, promote practical steps to implement Resolutions 1325, 1820, 1888, 1889  and 1960 on Women, Peace and Security and the empowerment of women in all aspects of peace and security. Australia has already played a leading role on these issues – not least through its fund to the Pacific region for women’s empowerment in politics, its National Action Plan on the implementation of Resolution 1820, and its work on the role of female policing and peacekeeping personnel in UN missions.  To take one example, Resolution 1889 called for greater participation of women at all levels of UN field missions and measures to ensure the participation of women in peace processes. Some specific things that Australia could do include:

  • Promoting the Women Protection Advisor (WPA) role in UN field missions. This role was trialed successfully in Chad and should be incorporated into all mandates that include protection duties or involve deployments into areas of risk of sexual and gender based violence. It has been difficult, however, to put this initiative on a sustainable footing. Australia could play a leading role on this through its contributions to discussion about mandates and funding.
  • Encouraging the participation of women in conflict resolution and peace processes.  Australia could lead work aimed at overcoming the practical obstacles to this objective.
  • Promoting practical steps to increase the number of female peacekeepers and uniformed police officers serving in UN missions
  • Encouraging the appointment of more women to senior roles in UN peacekeeping and other missions. Australia has led the way in some respects by, for example, appointing a woman to command its police contingent in Timor-Leste – a world first. As a member of the Security Council, Australia will have some influence over the composition of the pool of candidates for positions such as Special Representatives of the Secretary-General and force commanders.
  • Promote the security of all vulnerable groups from sexual violence before, during and after conflict – this means a concerted focus on prevention as well as protection, as called for in UNSC Resolution 1960

Third, promote the strengthening of contributions to UN peacekeeping operations. The UN is currently facing critical challenges in relation to sustaining its peacekeeping operations and improving their effectiveness. Australia could use its tenure on the Security Council to encourage the Council to think creatively about:

  • Persuading members of the Western European and Others Group to contribute more military, policing and civilian personnel to UN missions;
  • How the Security Council might help to nurture and support the potential major contributors to UN peacekeeping of the future, including many contributors in Southeast Asia;
  • Facilitating the establishment of a more reliable and effective force generation system for UN peacekeeping;
  • Identifying and closing critical capability gaps, including through promotion of the use of gaps lists and further development of these initiatives.These agendas may be pursued through the Council’s working group on peacekeeping as well as through its ongoing consideration of management and mandate issues.
  • Continuing to advance conceptual and doctrinal thinking about the protection of civilians by peacekeeping operations, and to advance the practice of prevention.

Fourth, strengthen the Council’s work in protecting humanitarian workers and humanitarian access. In relation to the Syrian crisis, Foreign Minister Bob Carr has been actively working to progress recognition and actualization of the legal rights to immunity and access bestowed upon humanitarian workers by International Humanitarian Law. The Security Council has repeatedly addressed this issue under the rubric of the protection of civilians but more is work needed to translate the Council’s demands for compliance into practice. The immunity of humanitarian workers from attack and granting of humanitarian access are core principles of law that are regularly violated in contemporary conflict.  The Foreign Minister’s calls for a right to access medical care in conditions of armed conflict are not vague ideals but hard law.  It is not easy to see how the Council might be used to advance this agenda, but it is one that should feature in Australia’s ongoing contribution to protection debates.

Fifth, encourage the Security Council to advance implementation of the Responsibility to Protect principle. Australia has been at the forefront of the global campaign in support of the Responsibility to Protect – RtoP – the idea that states should protect their own people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, that the international community should assist them to that end, and that the world should take timely and decisive action – through the Council – to protect populations from these crimes. It is now in a position to think innovatively about how it might use its position on the Council to advance and deepen that body’s engagement with RtoP. Possibilities include:

  • Seeking inclusion of RtoP language in resolutions, where appropriate;
  • Encouraging the Council to explore the use of non-coercive measures at an earlier stage of a crisis to stop the descent into violence;
  • Encouraging the Council to explore, perhaps informally, the conditions that make RtoP crimes more likely and pathways of escalation, to better equip the Council to pick situations likely to produce atrocities at an early stage;
  • Encourage ongoing consideration about the way in which mandates are framed to achieve RtoP objectives in light of recent controversies;
  • Explore possibilities (such as an informal working group) for encouraging the Council to deepen its own engagement with the implementation of RtoP, in tandem with the General Assembly

Alex Bellamy and Sara Davies, Human Protection Hub