Less than a week ago, Australia spearheaded efforts for the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution on the Syrian humanitarian crisis. This week Australian diplomats in New York, boosted by the high-profile engagement of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, have worked deftly to navigate their way around Russian opposition to reach agreement on resolution 2166 which calls for an independent and impartial investigation into the ‘downing‘ of flight MH17.
As a non-permanent Council member with a genuine strategic interest in the events unfolding in the Ukraine over the last few months, but little leverage to shape outcomes there, Australia’s engagement on the situation during 19 Council meetings since February had effectively been limited to that of a diligent and constructive board member.
But that changed when 37 Australian citizens and residents—the most of any Council member—lost their lives on MH17. Citizens from several countries, including the Netherlands, Malaysia and the UK, were among the 298 passengers and crew killed last week. Given the impact of the events on Australia’s interests, it was natural for Australia to take a leadership role in pursuing a resolution for an independent and impartial investigation. But, without the support of other Council members, we would have had more difficulty doing so in such a short period of time—something which reflects the level of respect that Australia has garnered during its current term on the Council.
The Council agreed unanimously last week to resolution 2165 (PDF) on humanitarian access in Syria. This came after months of behind-the-scenes work by Australia, along with Luxembourg and Jordan, to finalise a text that would be acceptable to all Council members (including Russia and China, which have vetoed four previous resolutions on Syria). The resolution authorises the delivery of humanitarian aid by the UN system to the civilian population, without the requirement of consent from the Syrian government. After more than three years of civil war, it’s a small but significant step forward, which is expected to enable assistance to as many as 2 million civilians on the ground.
Australia will rotate off the Council in less than six months. Recent events suggest the final quarter will be intense. Nonetheless, the last few months also present an opportunity to be the most effective: we’ve now mastered the complex intricacies of Council procedures, established working relationships in New York, and built a stock of political capital with other members.
In the remaining months, it’ll be important that Australia continues its substantive engagement in areas where it has built a reputation as an effective Council player. Most immediately, this will involve holding the Council’s attention on the investigation into the events surrounding MH17 and ensuring that those responsible are held to account. Ongoing engagement with the UN will also be required on humanitarian access in Syria to ensure resolution 2165 is being implemented effectively. Supporting timely public briefings to the Council will maintain pressure on Russia in both those contexts.
We’ll need similar efforts in areas where Australia holds clear Council responsibilities. As the ‘pen-holder’ (coordinator in the Council) on Afghanistan, it’s expected that will include a Council product prior to the end of 2014 on the post-ISAF presence in Afghanistan. As chair of three UN sanctions committees, Australia has also invested time in shaping UN efforts on a more comprehensive approach to sanctions. While that work could continue once Australia leaves the Council, there’s more political capital available to influence those efforts in the next few months.
Australia’s also in the unique and enviable position of holding a second Presidency of the Council in November, presenting another opportunity to pursue an outcome on a thematic issue. It’s expected that Australia will seek to focus on the role of policing in peacekeeping. Given the growing need for qualified and skilled police peacekeepers, it’s an issue that would benefit from further international engagement.
In addition to high profile activities, one of the most durable legacies that Australia can leave in the remaining few months will be incrementally shaping Council mandates, particularly on peacekeeping missions. While mandates are reviewed regularly, they essentially build on the language already agreed. Ensuring resolutions include language on Australian priorities—such as protection of civilians and preventing the illicit flow of small arms and light weapons—will help sustain our influence beyond our Council term.
While the Council’s agenda might not always directly affect Australia, it does affect our interests—and those of our partners and allies. As the government starts to contemplate the priorities and legacy from our current term on the Council, it should also be thinking about the lessons we’ve learned—and when Australia might step up to serve again.
Lisa Sharland is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Arthur Lee.