Multilateral engagement—Australia’s role in the United Nations Security Council and the G20

Nicole Brangwin, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security and Tarek Dale, Economics

Key issue 
Australia is well positioned on the global stage at two major international forums after winning a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and agreeing to host the Group of Twenty (G20) meetings in Australia in 2014.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC)

On 1 January 2013, Australia commenced a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UNSC. This is the fifth time Australia has sat on the UNSC since the organisation held its first session in January 1946, over which Australia presided.

As part of this role, Australia chairs three Security Council subsidiary committees (until 31 December 2013) on Iran, al Qaeda and the Taliban. Australia is also the ‘pen holder’ for Afghanistan—‘pen holders’ take the lead in preparing UNSC resolutions.

Each UNSC member rotates through the presidency role on a monthly basis. For the month of September 2013, it was Australia’s turn to preside over the UNSC. As President, Australia was responsible for ‘convening and chairing Security Council meetings, managing the agenda, and facilitating the work of the Council’. Many commentators viewed the presidency as an opportunity for Australia to influence the agenda, particularly on the situation in Syria. Australia is expected to return to the UNSC Presidency near the end of next year.

Australia’s presidency came at a volatile time in international affairs, with the response to the escalating situation in Syria deadlocked among the veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC. While Syria did not feature prominently in the September Programme of Work, which was discussed and agreed to by UNSC members on 4 September, UNSC President, Australia’s Ambassador, Gary Quinlan, told reporters that ‘discussion among the P-5 went nowhere’ on the issue of Syria. Consequently, it was decided that convening a formal meeting on Syria would be pointless at that time, especially since the UN team investigating the alleged ‘chemical attack’ in Syria had not yet reported its findings.

Australia’s presidency also aligned with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA’s) 68th session. World leaders took part in the general debate, including Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Traditionally, the President of the UNSC promotes an issue of particular importance. On 26 September 2013, Australia initiated a high-level meeting on small arms, which was chaired by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Consequently, the UNSC adopted its first resolution (2117) solely dedicated to small arms and light weapons. By promoting this issue, Australia sought to capitalise on the momentum gained from the UNGA’s adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) on 2 April 2013. The issue of small arms had not been discussed in the UNSC since 2008.

Last year, the UNSC adopted 53 resolutions, of which 50 were unanimous. Thirty-two of the resolutions were Chapter VII mandates, shoring up peacekeeping and political missions in countries such as Afghanistan, Mali and Somalia. Two draft resolutions on Syria were vetoed by China and Russia. At the time of writing, the UNSC had adopted 33 resolutions this year.

Following recent discussions at the G20 Leaders’ Summit in St Petersburg, Russia and United States’ (US) President Barack Obama’s 10 September 2013 speech on Syria, the UNSC achieved consensus on the Syria issue and unanimously adopted Resolution 2118, requiring the Assad regime to surrender its chemical weapons.


Hosting the Group of Twenty (G20) in 2014 is a significant opportunity for Australia. A year of meetings by senior officials and ministers will culminate in a Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane in November 2014. Australia, as the chair, has a unique opportunity to shape the outcomes of the summit that has been labelled the world’s premier economic policy forum.

Australia has been involved since the start of the G20. The forum was established in 1999 after the Asian financial crisis, when G7 finance ministers and central bank officials agreed on the need to extend economic policy coordination to a larger group that included key developing nations. From 1999 onwards, finance ministers and central bankers have met to coordinate economic policy and regulation (including a 2006 meeting in Melbourne). The group includes members of 19 countries and the European Union. Together, the G20 nations represent approximately 80% of international economic activity and 90% of global trade.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, Prime Minister Rudd was influential in promoting the G20 as a forum of choice for international coordination. In 2008 when US President George W Bush convened a meeting of heads of state in Washington, Australia’s inclusion in the forum represented a new and important opportunity for middle-power diplomacy.

The period during and after the financial crisis was a major success for the G20. International leaders at the London summit in 2009 committed to a combined US$5 trillion fiscal stimulus and US$1 trillion in additional resources for the International Monetary Fund, multilateral development banks and increased support for trade finance. Amidst the confusion of the financial crisis, this represented clear coordinated policy action. Since then, G20 heads of government have met annually (twice in 2009), with senior officials and ministers meeting prior to the Leaders’ Summit. There is no dedicated secretariat for the G20—each host country is responsible for coordination and administration.

As chair in 2014, Australia is now a member of the Troika; a group that includes previous (Mexico), current (Russia) and future chairs (Australia). Following its success after the 2008 financial crisis, commentators have argued that more recent G20 summits lack clear outcomes and commitments, and the forum’s consensus approach means that difficult policy issues may be avoided or left unresolved. Although hosting the G20 represents an enormous logistical challenge for Australia, the harder task may be ensuring that the forum lives up to its early promise.


Australia is one of the founding members of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which formed in 1989. APEC’s aims are predominantly trade and investment focused; trying to promote ‘economic growth and prosperity for the region and strengthen the Asia-Pacific community’. APEC consists of 21 member economies.

APEC’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in terms of Purchasing Power Parity has almost tripled over the last two decades—from $14.8 trillion in 1992 to $43.9 trillion in 2011 (calculated in international dollars). Australia’s trade with the APEC region in 2011 saw an average increase of 7.5% per annum since 2006 and accounted for 71% of Australia’s total goods and services trade (A$431.5 billion).

The most recent APEC Economic Leaders’ Week meetings took place on 1–8 October 2013 in Bali, Indonesia.

To date, 12 APEC countries have joined the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is separate to APEC and seeks to eliminate or reduce ‘barriers to trade and investment’ in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia joined the TPP in 2008. Negotiations are continuing on the development of a ‘high-standard regional trade and investment agreement’ among members.

Further reading

N Markovic, ‘Australia wins seat on United Nations Security Council: what next?’, FlagPost weblog, 19 October 2012.

Xu Yi-Chong, ‘Australian participation in the G20’, in W Hofmeister, ed., G20: perceptions and perspectives for global governance, Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Singapore, 2011.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), The APEC region trade and investment, Market Information and Research section, DFAT, 2012.

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