Australia’s engagement with the United Nations

Nina Markovic, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section

Overview

As a founding member of the United Nations (UN) system that was formally established on
24 October 1945, Australia has been actively involved in peacekeeping, disarmament, humanitarian and development assistance, administration, and other areas of the UN’s work for 65 years. Peacekeeping in particular has long enjoyed bipartisan political support, as exemplified by Australia’s strong support for ongoing UN-mandated operations in Timor-Leste.

The Australian Parliament has always taken a keen interest in UN matters. Key activities include:

  • parliamentary advisers attached to the Australian permanent mission to the UN
  • creation of the Australian Parliamentary Association for UNICEF
  • Senate and Joint Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (FADT) Committee inquiries
  • Reports by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Treaties, and
  • the United Nations Parliamentary Group (established during the 42nd Parliament).

The Rudd/Gillard Labor Government has placed a renewed emphasis on Australia’s activism in multilateral institutions such as the UN. This is in line with Labor’s three-pillar foreign policy outlook, which places high importance on Australia’s multilateral engagements in the international arena to complement the country’s bilateral relationships. The UN is regarded by the Government as the world’s pre-eminent conflict resolution body, as an essential forum for global cooperation, and as the mechanism for responding to transnational challenges to human and international security—notwithstanding its own institutional challenges.

Australia’s financial contributions to the UN

In 2008–09, Australia contributed a total of $153.4 million to sixteen UN peacekeeping operations, funding which is administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. During the same period, the majority of Australian contributions to international organisations supported the work of UN organs and agencies (over $89 million). Between 2007 and 2009, Australia was the thirteenth largest contributor to the regular UN budget.

In the 2008–09 Federal Budget the Australian Government announced an additional $200 million over four years in funding to the UN agencies working on the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). As outlined in the 2008–09 budget measures for AusAID, Australia’s funding for MDG-related activities is expected to significantly increase closer to the year 2015—which is the target deadline year for achieving the MDGs. Although progress on several MDGs has been slower in recent years (in light of the global financial crisis), Australia is likely to be active in generating further consensus to address the remaining gaps in the MDG progress, particularly in the South Pacific.

Apart from the field of development assistance, Australian contributions are likely to intensify in areas such as nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, UN reform, and UN Security Council-related work.

Australia’s UN Security Council bid

The issue of Australia’s engagement with the UN featured prominently in the 2010 pre-election foreign policy statements of both the Government and the Opposition. In particular, Australia’s candidacy for a two-year non-permanent UN Security Council seat emerged as an issue of contention between the two major parties leading up to the election. Australia has previously served on the UN Security Council on four occasions: 1946–47, 1956–57, 1973–74, and 1985–86.

On 30 March 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced Australia’s candidacy to serve, for the fifth time, as one of ten non-permanent members on the fifteen-member UN Security Council in 2013–14. Australia’s competitors for the two available seats in 2013–14 reserved for the ‘Western European and Others Group’ to which Australia belongs, are Finland and Luxembourg. Both are EU member states, each of which is pursuing its own diplomatic quest for the role. In September 2009, a poll conducted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy suggested that over two-thirds of surveyed Australians supported the Government’s bid.

In Labor’s pre-election foreign policy statement, Advancing Australia’s Interests Internationally, the issue of Australia’s strong and reinvigorated engagement with the UN was highlighted as part of Labor’s three-pillar foreign policy vision. Engagement with the UN is part of a broader active involvement in multilateral forums.

The Labor Government has so far allocated over $11 million towards the bid (from a mixture of existing and additional funding). This has resulted in more robust diplomatic engagement in Africa, and dialogue with members of the Non-Aligned Movement world-wide. It is expected that further funding for this initiative may be allocated to relevant government departments as the vote on this matter in 2012 looms.

The Opposition has expressed qualified support for the UN system ‘where it is in Australia’s national interest’. It has also criticised the Labor Government’s funding allocations for the UN Security Council bid. The Coalition’s plan for real action on Foreign Affairs (its pre-election foreign policy statement) portrayed this diplomatic initiative as an extravagant affair and not in Australia’s core foreign policy interests, which the Coalition believes lie predominantly in bilateral engagements with key partners, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region and Indian Ocean Rim.

With the return of Labor as a minority government it is likely that Australia’s UN Security Council bid will continue and diplomatic efforts will intensify leading up to 2012. As recommended by the Joint FADT Committee report in June 2001, Australia will most likely continue to support the reform of the UN Security Council, including additional representation on a permanent basis for Africa and Asia. If successful in its bid for the UN Security Council seat, transparency would be enhanced by the Government being as open as possible with the parliament about its priorities, decisions and voting in the UN Security Council.

Australia and UN human rights bodies

Australia is a party to the seven key UN human rights treaties. Australia complements this with engagement in regional forums and bilateral dialogue with such countries as China and Vietnam. Australia’s activities towards strengthening the effectiveness of the UN human rights regime (in particular the Human Rights Council) is likely to intensify in the future, primarily through Australia’s engagement with the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, and regional mechanisms. Non-government participation in UN human rights work (including by Australian civil society and private sector groups) is likely to expand in the future.

Outlook

Under the Gillard Labor Government, Australia is likely to robustly engage with the UN, particularly on issues that the Government perceives to be challenges to both global and Australia’s national interests, such as climate change, food insecurity, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. Financial contributions to the work of the UN agencies are likely to increase, in particular in support of overseas development assistance. As in other policy areas, the challenge for the current Government in increasing its engagement with the UN is likely to be winning the support of parliament for its initiatives. A strategic, whole-of-government approach to UN affairs could also include a dialogue with the non-government sector on key issues defining Australian engagement with the UN.

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