No seat at the table, but Australia still has interests at stake
28 Jan 2015|

Australia’s rotation off the UN Security Council on 31 December 2014 occurred quietly and without fanfare—a marked shift after six years of campaigning and serving. The foreign minister released a media statement highlighting many of the achievements that took place during the two year term. There has been praise from commentators and diplomats alike about Australia’s successful term. Even the last minute ‘no’ vote on an imposed negotiated solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict—the only ‘no’ vote cast during Australia’s two-year term—is unlikely to diminish Australia’s record as a substantive contributor to the Council. But what now?

Presumably some analysis is taking place within DFAT and across government about what Australia did well on the Council and possibly even when the government might consider running again for another non-permanent term. But as diplomats rotate and staff move on, there’s a risk the institutional memory garnered from two years working on the Council will be lost quickly.

True, institutional memory will be of limited use if Australia takes several decades to serve again. When Australia served its fourth term on the Council from 1985–86, the United States and the Soviet Union were still facing off against one another in the dying days of the Cold War and peacekeeping wasn’t the big business that it is today. It was a different landscape. Still, we should make an effort to capture the lessons of our recent experience and be willing to share them with others. Australia had a lot to learn from others with more recent experience when it joined the Council and is now in the position of being able to return the favour. That presents an opportunity for strengthened bilateral engagement with new members (including New Zealand, Spain and Malaysia), as well as those running for a seat on the Council in coming years (among them the Netherlands and Japan).

Cooperation between Australia and New Zealand has been strong in the UN system as part of the ‘CANZ’ regional group (along with Canada). New Zealand’s Permanent Representative, Jim McLay, has assumed the role of Chair of the al-Qaida and Taliban sanctions committees, taking over from Gary Quinlan, Australia’s Permanent Representative. The solid relationship of cooperation that already exists presents a useful opportunity for ensuring continuity in the work of those committees as well as broader sanctions reform.

Recent Council membership also positions Australia well to support a range of significant reviews taking place within the UN system on matters related to peace and security. Three reviews underway throughout 2015 focus on key aspects of the Council’s agenda, namely peace operations, the peacebuilding architecture, and women, peace and security.

In the case of peacekeeping, Australia’s Council membership coincided with a series of significant changes and developments relating to peacekeeping mandates, including the deployment of an intervention brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and new multidimensional missions in Mali and the Central African Republic. Australia used its Council tenure to shine a light on areas less explored by the Council in the context of peacekeeping, including policing, small arms, and sanctions. Drawing on Council and operational experience (in UN and non-UN led missions), Australia should seek to engage substantively in the peace operations review process. It’d present an opportunity to reaffirm Australia’s commitment to UN peacekeeping—an occasion missed during a US-led summit on peacekeeping in September 2014 (where more than 30 countries made commitments and Australia did not).

Rotating off the Council doesn’t mean that Australia’s interest in the work or activities of the Council disappears. If anything, issues that dominated the last six months of Australia’s term—Ebola, terrorism and peacekeeping—demonstrated the UN’s ongoing relevance in coalescing support and action to address global security threats. More than half of the Security Council’s agenda is focused on Africa. An important legacy of Australia’s Council engagement should include maintaining and building upon the diplomatic relationships that have been enhanced in Africa (and the posts accredited to African countries) in order to support the Council term. It’s a region which will continue to affect Australia’s interests.

In a year that will commemorate 70 years since the founding of the UN, it’s opportune for the government to consider how Australia can build on its Council legacy to remain influential and engaged in addressing a range of global threats to peace and security. We have utilised Council membership to pursue our interests. Now we should support the work of partners and allies, and engage substantively in important UN reform efforts, to ensure the organisation remains effective in addressing the complex and diverse challenges it’s likely to face in coming decades.

Lisa Sharland is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user C.P.Storm.