The United Nations and Australia

Nicole Brangwin, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section

Key issue
Australia continues to support the United Nations (UN) through financial contributions, personnel deployments (civilian, military and police) and membership of key UN bodies.

Australia’s relationship with the UN dates back to its formation, with Australia one of the 51 founding members that ratified the UN Charter in 1945. Australia has been a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council five times and currently holds a non-permanent position on the UN Human Rights Council. In September 2015 the Turnbull Government announced Australia’s candidacy to serve on the UN Security Council in 2029–30. It is unclear whether this will be pursued by the Morrison Government.

In April 2019 Foreign Minister Marise Payne affirmed to Parliament Australia’s position on the UN. In response to a question about the Government’s continued support for the UN despite the UN’s criticism of Australian Government border protection policy, she said:

We see a period of rapid and accelerating change and we see times of rising nationalism and geopolitical competition, but that does not mean that we should walk away from those organisations in which we have the opportunity to argue for the rules based international order and in which we have the opportunity to protect and promote those systems and processes which enable us to solve problems together. Our most urgent global challenges are not going to be solved by any one country acting alone. 

As such, Australia continues to contribute to the work of UN bodies and provide financial support to the organisation.

Australia’s contribution to the UN

Australia’s net contribution to the UN’s regular budget for 2019 was assessed as US$61,619,804 and paid in full prior to the due date (31 January 2019). As at 28 May 2019, 102 of the UN’s 193 member states had paid their contribution in full. Of those 102 states, Australia is the eighth highest contributor. As at 30 April 2019, unpaid assessments totalled US$1.7 billion, an increase of US$146 million on the previous year. In recent years, the UN’s regular budget has been facing financial crisis and 2018 was considered ‘the worst year in the past 10 years’. The UN forecasts the financial situation for the regular budget will worsen in 2019.

The UN’s peacekeeping budget is also under strain. As at 30 April 2019, unpaid assessments totalled US$2.1 billion. This is having an impact on UN operations, with some missions managing on ‘less than one month of operating costs’. As a consequence, some contributing member states are experiencing delays in receiving reimbursements for personnel (military, police and civilian) and equipment costs. The UN reported that by 30 April 2019, member states were owed a total of US$1,009 million.

As of 30 April 2019, Australia contributes 36 personnel to three UN peacekeeping missions: three staff officers to Cyprus (UNFICYP); 20 staff officers and one Expert on Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS); and 12 Experts on Mission to the Middle East (UNTSO, based in Jerusalem). Australia was one of 45 member states to pay the peacekeeping assessment in full and on time, and is the eleventh largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping.

Human Rights Council

Since January 2018, Australia has been a member of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and will hold this position until the end of December 2020. The credibility of the UN HRC has come under fire with the US withdrawing its membership in June 2018, citing bias towards Israel. The Morrison Government asserted Australia’s longstanding position on this issue in February 2019, telling the HRC that Australia ‘opposes in principle’ the permanent inclusion on the Council’s agenda of Item 7 on the ‘human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories’:

It is our firm view that a separate agenda item focussing on a single country situation—in this case Israel—is inappropriate. It does not occur in any other context, for any other country.

During the HRC’s March 2019 session, resolutions under agenda Item 7 were voted on five times and Australia voted against each resolution (the US also maintained a vote against each resolution; Togo voted against four; the UK against two; Hungary against two and a number of European countries against one resolution). Though, the Morrison Government’s statement to the HRC in February 2019 reaffirmed Australia’s support for a two-state solution.

UN Command—Korean Peninsula

For the first time since the UN Command in Korea (UNC) was formed in 1950, an Australian military commander, Vice Admiral Stuart Mayer, has been appointed to the role of Deputy Commander. Mayer will replace Canadian Lieutenant General Wayne Eyre, who was the first non-American to take up the position. In addition, the UNC requested a small contingent of ADF personnel (initially three will be sent). These movements are part of efforts by the US Forces Korea to revitalise the UNC, drawing on expertise from the other 16 sending states, which includes Australia.

International norms in cyberspace

The application of international law to cyberspace was confirmed in 2013 by the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (UNGGE) on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security. Australia was Chair of the UNGGE at the time. Australia continues to provide expertise to the UNGGE as a member in 2016–17 and again in 2019–21. The UNGGE has established an open-ended working group, which is scheduled to meet for the first time in June 2019 and expected to report to the UN General Assembly in 2020 on its work developing rules, norms and principles of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace and their implementation. For further information on cyber-related issues, see the article ‘Cybersecurity’ elsewhere in this publication.

Further reading

N Brangwin, ‘United Nations: whither reform?’, Briefing Book: Key issues for the 45th Parliament, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016.

UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA), ‘Developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security’, UNODA website.


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