Australia wins seat on United Nations Security Council: what next?

In the early hours of this morning (local time), Australia received 140 votes from United Nations General Assembly members to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for its 2013–14 term. The result has been welcomed by both the Government and the Opposition. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr, has described the win as a tribute to Australia’s global standing: ‘it’s the world saying, we see Australia as a good country, a fine global citizen’, he said, thanking Pacific, African and Caribbean nations in particular for their support.

The 15-member UNSC is the principal organ under the UN Charter responsible for maintaining international peace and security. It is the primary mediation body during major international crises and is responsible for overseeing UN peacekeeping operations. Its powers also include authorising the use of force and binding sanctions, proscribing terrorist organisations, and appointing special investigators to examine critical issues that affect global security. Australia, a founding member of the UN, has served on the UNSC for four terms (1946–1947, 1956–1957, 1973–1974 and 1985–1986). In 1996, Australia failed in its bid for the 1997–98 term.

In March 2008, Australia’s then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced, in New York, the Government’s intention to seek a non-permanent seat on the UNSC for the 2013–14 term. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) moved quickly to establish a Security Council Campaign Taskforce and to provide more resources to Australia’s UN diplomatic mission in New York. In October 2010, Mr Rudd, then Foreign Minister, announced the appointment of Bob McMullan (for Africa) and Bill Fisher (for Francophone countries) as Special Envoys for Australia’s UNSC candidacy. A former Liberal Senator and Special Envoy for Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Caucasus, Dr Russell Trood, also assisted the campaign. A brochure outlining the rationale behind Australia’s entry into the race (six and seven years later than Finland and Luxembourg respectively) is available here.

The Australian Institute for International Affairs (AIIA) has published a useful set of background documents on Australia and the UN, which contains key speeches and reflections by other countries that have served on the UNSC.

The vote

In order to win a non-permanent seat on the UNSC alongside the five permanent representatives which have the veto power (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), each contender needed to secure at least two-thirds of votes cast by members present and voting in the General Assembly session (or a minimum of 129 votes if all 193 members are voting). A more detailed overview of the UNSC elections is available here.

In accordance with its established procedures, the UN General Assembly voted on 18 October 2012 in a secret ballot for the five available positions from the UN’s four geographical groups– Africa, Asia-Pacific, the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States (GRULAC) and the West European and Others (WEOG). Australia belongs to the WEOG group, where its rivals for the two available seats were Finland and Luxembourg, both European Union members. Luxembourg, which has never held a seat on the UNSC, won the other WEOG seat in a second round of voting, beating Finland. Rwanda (Africa) and Argentina (GRULAC) won unopposed in their respective groups. In the Asia-Pacific group, the competition was fiercer: Bhutan, Cambodia and the Republic of Korea competed for one seat, with the Republic of Korea winning the vote.

Commentary during the campaign

The Federal Opposition has hailed this ‘expensive victory’ for Australia. During the bid, however, the Coalition criticised the campaign. Its major criticism concerned the way money from foreign affairs and aid budgets was being allocated in the lead-up to the vote.

Senator Helen Kroger, speaking one day before the vote, said the Australian diplomatic campaign, which is estimated to have cost around A$25 million over five years, was often ‘patchy, unfocused’ and lacking a clear strategic direction, including from within DFAT as the coordinating agency.

The Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, whilst endorsing the campaign in the final stage, was reported as saying that losing the bid would be ‘disastrous’ for Australia.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, criticised the Government for entering the race much later than its rivals and at a time when DFAT was severely under-funded. She said that ‘there can be benefits from gaining a temporary seat on the UNSC, although for these to be realised a nation must have a clear vision of why it is seeking membership and what it hopes to achieve’.

Former Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer predicted that Australia would most likely win.

In 2009, a survey conducted by the Lowy Institute for International Policy found that 71 per cent of surveyed Australians ‘partly’ or ‘strongly’ supported the UNSC campaign.

What next?

Prior to the vote, in her speech to the UN General Assembly on 26 September 2012, Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, outlined some of Australia’s key priorities should we secure a non-permanent UNSC seat – the situation in Syria, the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the Korean peninsula, Iran’s ongoing uranium enrichment activities, and the Middle East peace process. The Opposition has highlighted the need to identify clear priorities and said that it will be important for Australia ‘not to squander the opportunity at this political top table’. The Australian Greens have stated that Australia should 'use this opportunity to put addressing global warming, caring for people and controlling weapons at the top of the global security agenda'.

As noted, one of the criticisms raised during the campaign was that Australia lacked a clear plan of action should our bid succeed. Peter Jennings and Anthony Bergin from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) have suggested five areas of focus for Australia – strengthening the UN’s capacity to deal with failing states; keeping East Timor on the international agenda; building international support to help ban Improvised Explosive Devices; strengthening maritime security in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim; and strengthening global collaboration on cyber security.

Non-governmental organisations, such as United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) and Oxfam, have also offered suggestions about the priorities Australia should pursue within the UNSC.

Questions have also been raised about how Australia would vote in the UNSC if the position of our key ally, the United States, was at odds with that our biggest trade partner, China.

Another question is whether DFAT will be adequately resourced to pursue Australia’s diplomatic objectives in the UNSC. Dr Jeremy Farrall, a former Political Affairs Officer with the UNSC who now works at the Australian National University, said today that ‘Australia will need to expand its diplomatic resources both in New York and in Canberra in order to play a meaningful role on the Security Council’. The Age has recently reported that DFAT is likely to seek additional funding of up to A$34 million to support its new UNSC workload.

The Australian Financial Review reported today that Prime Minister Julia Gillard has listed the war in Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation and the fight against global terror as issues Australia will pursue after it takes up its seat on 1 January 2013.

Australia will also preside over UNSC for one month in 2014.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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