The United Nations and Australia’s place in it
19 Sep 2020|

Watching mob violence in the streets of America, I recalled an encounter in Kosovo in 1999. Driving through the country one day in a UN vehicle, I stopped at the house of a man who, some months before, had been dragged from his house by Serbian paramilitaries and made to kneel on the dusty road and was poised for execution in front of his seven daughters.

It was at the height of the civil war in Kosovo, and the Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian authorities were embittered foes. The shrill politics of extremes and the whip of war had already unravelled most of former Yugoslavia. Kosovo was the last chapter, and both sides were exacting revenge. Some of the same Serbian paramilitary groups that had committed crimes in Bosnia were marauding in the restive Yugoslav province.

A jeep-load of regular Serbian soldiers rounded the corner. An officer dismounted, arranged his men gun to gun against the paramilitaries and arrested the would-be executioner. ‘That soldier saw me for who I am’, said the man, while his daughters listened on. The Serbian officer hadn’t seen him as an Albanian, but as a father, a farmer and a man. That simple statement sits in sharp contrast to the multiplying tribalisms of pre-election America in 2020.

Moreover, the sentiments of this discreet scene are reflected in and magnified by the 20th century’s most edifying and vital document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the founding ethical and legal tenet of our times. International law that has flowed from the declaration has served as a guarantor of safety and peace for billions of people, despite regular flouting by dictators and génocidaires. Our first rule, the foundation of the modern life, is that we see each other as human.

Australia was one of eight nations that negotiated and drafted the declaration under our chief negotiator, H.V. ‘Doc’ Evatt. There were also a Lebanese, a Chilean and a Russian (72 years ago, it was all men). China’s negotiator, Peng Chun Chang, believed that Europe’s Enlightenment philosophers and the notion of the universality of rights were in part the intellectual sprigs of the Confucian philosopher Mencius.

We forget that the UN was the child of humankind’s bloodiest conflict. The world was exhausted by the Second World War and the excesses of totalitarianism (Mao was still to come), so the UN was a liberal enterprise constructed to deal with matters of hard power through consensus and what the political philosopher Joseph Nye eventually termed ‘soft’ power. As the UN’s second secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, famously said, the UN ‘was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell’.

Lots of Australians have continued to work for the UN. On the ground and at the sharp end of that work, it’s often dangerous. My UN colleagues have been harassed, shot at, assaulted, bombarded, expelled, humiliated, raped and murdered. I’ve lost colleagues in accidents and to bombs, and one was strangled in his bed. Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on a peace mission in Congo in 1961. We laud our armed forces, but almost never our unarmed forces, of which Australia has thousands already deployed.

The UN is a Tower of Babel, with all that that implies. Engaged in matters of soaring ambition, often you might labour prosaically alongside people with jarring cultures, or accents you don’t understand, or whose systems of government you fundamentally oppose. Yet, in conditions of stress and shared enterprise, great friendships are formed, lasting alliances are forged and a sense of human solidarity is amplified.

The UN’s bureaucracy is a network of improbable complexity. It’s easy to sneer at and very often frustrating, but, despite the towering aspiration of this malformed creature, it does produce gold. More than 100,000 troops serve in 14 peacekeeping missions. Agencies such as UNICEF, the High Commissioners for Refugees and Human Rights and the World Food Programme temper the misery of the most vulnerable.

The UN is the jack-of-all-trades repairperson we don’t like to think about. As with assumptions about electricity or water flows, or the absence of diseases like polio or smallpox, we ignore the power cables and pipes until the taps run dry and the lights go off, as it might have if the World Health Organization hadn’t largely functioned to coordinate a global response to Covid-19. In a world where the old pillars of vertical power alone are creaking with obsolescence and complex juvenile networks soak power up, the UN remains the best place to tackle global affairs.

Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans knew the weaknesses and ‘exhilarating’ strengths of the UN. He helped negotiate what he called the most robust arms-control treaty on weapons of mass destruction—the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. After genocides in Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur, he was a proponent of the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine that, in theory (as Syria sadly demonstrates), is a red line when rulers try to eradicate their own people. International laws and norms protect us through the very act of negotiating those laws, as well as mutual vigilance over their observance.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s recent speeches flag a renewed Australian commitment to the UN. This reflects the pandemic’s revelation of our complex, interwoven global fragility, from our systems of health, welfare, security, transnational business (including our university industry), communications, pleasure-seeking and government to the fragility of our own bodies. Neat post–Cold War assumptions about a world order crafted from neoliberal economic and political triumphalism are dead.

Those assumptions were a bad and simplistic bet, and now we pay the debt. Two decades of expeditionary warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan that excluded a rising China and a moribund Russia bled the US of wealth and credibility. It also obscured the sickening of the international system we thought we knew. Yet America’s reaction to a bloodied nose and diminishing economic and military power while China rises and Russia rebounds has been a corroded commitment to the UN. That vacuum has been logically filled by China, now the UN’s second largest contributor, with a new influence in agencies such as the WHO.

Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian politician and intellectual, has said that the political question is always, ‘Who will protect me now?’ In an exponentially complex world, how do those of us distracted by raising children and paying mortgages answer that? Newly risen populists exploit the Ignatieff question and our distraction with a facile bait and switch. Because no single government can provide solutions to universal complexity, populists bait us with fear of our present and switch in a fear of other tribes. Fear leads to the politics of extremity as we stop seeing people for who they are.

Australia has much to gain from a robust UN and much to lose from its impairment. To use just one example of complex challenges, the world must have refreshed migrant and refugee agreements that account for huge and permanent flows of displaced people in the 21st century, which is quite different from the era of refugee treaty instruments of 70 years ago. Australia must balance the management of our sovereign borders and the intakes we need to keep us prosperous with our liberal humanist obligations to those we recognise as equally human, but out of luck.

Covid-19 is just a single adverse event. Unlike the misfortune of an earthquake, a three-month fire season, a tsunami or low-level Middle East wars, this once-in-a-century event has provided fresh insight into the complex civilisational impact that a contagion of greater transmissibility and lethality, or a solar flare or asteroid, or an epic nuclear disaster, or a human-made bacteriological or chemical storm (such as the widespread dispersal of Russia’s chemical agent Novichok) would have on life on earth.

The relatively moderate impact of Covid-19 has alerted us that our neatly organised lives can be switched off in a blink. The great post-pandemic challenge will be to build new resilience into the globalised systems of consensus—the ‘rules-based order’—that we increasingly rely on to physically protect us. This encompasses agreements on nuclear weapons proliferation, climate change, international crime and extremism, space and cyber warfare, corruption and finance, water resources, fishing, and virtual propaganda battles fought over social media outlets that leave our very grasp of reality spinning.

A sense of reality in a complex world is critical. Good propaganda, as Nye once said, is not propaganda, and power and resilience in the 21st century are closely related to ‘whose story wins’. You can’t speak authentically of peace when you promote war, or free trade when you stymie it, or human rights when you cage your own populations en masse. People will eventually call you out. Middle-power countries of modest ambition, whose rhetoric is matched by fact, must constrain our leviathan trade and alliance partners through multilateral organisations in order to shape the world for our own security.

Australia is a UN poster child with a winning story, and it’s not just about Kylie Minogue or Paul Hogan. Our story is about an authentic 21st-century national resilience, as evidenced by our systemic and political management of the Covid-19 contagion. This resilience includes luck, such as iron ore deposits, but also consensus politics spawned by our social temperament, an educated population, a great health system, a first-class bureaucracy, and the fruits of an immigration flow that has fuelled our economy and hardwired us to every other continent. We’re close to what we preach.

Yet we also lag. Australia has a huge corps of Australians who have quietly and expertly built resilience into the international system over decades. Yet this highly trained network is unmapped, scattered and currently untapped for its collective soft-power intelligence and sharp-power impact. In the dozens of conflict and disaster zones I’ve been involved with through multiple UN agencies, I was contacted just once by an Australian embassy when there was a perceived and very public threat to life.

In this line of work, you find yourself exposed to disease, thirst, mischance and lots of people with twitchy trigger fingers, but working for the UN or in the multiplying international agencies such as ActionAid or the International Rescue Committee is not an act of altruism. You’re the face of your country, at a coalface of international cooperation, performing exciting work, imbued with meaning, and often with real and immediate impact on lives out of luck.

Less understood is the impact this work has on global resilience and, ultimately, the safety, security and resilience of the Australian homeland.