Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

Completed Inquiry: Australia's Role in United Nations Reform


The ideals of the United Nations, as expressed in the Charter, are as important today as they were when they were first written. The challenge is to find the means within the structure of implementing these ideals. It was clear to the committee that the United Nations was in need of reform. Reform is central to the achievement of peace, security and improved human rights. It is an organisation in need of a new focus and new structures, greater efficiency and accountability and greater support from the more powerful states in the world.

In this inquiry, the committee noted that a large number of submissions voiced criticisms that reflect disillusionment with the UN. It was claimed that the UN was a world government and that, hence, it was destroying our national sovereignty. The elements of this destruction, it was argued, lay in the treaty system, the International Criminal Court, the demand for a standing army or even for peacekeeping forces. These submissions appeared to believe that the old system of bilateral arrangements between states should be untouchable and that the UN, through its existence and its activities, was the source of what were perceived to be fundamentally sinister changes in international relations. They viewed multilateral treaties, not as useful agreements freely entered into, but as attempts by some outside force to control the country. Additional complaints were made about the cost and inefficiency of the UN.

The committee did not accept a majority of these criticisms as valid. The United Nations is not a world government. It is an association of States which freely choose to be part of the organisation. In that process, some measure of national sovereignty is surrendered in the interests of greater national control over matters beyond national jurisdiction. Sovereignty has never been absolute; it is not sacred and not immutable; the sovereignty of individual states is often based on accidents of history and dependent on the continuing recognition of it by other states. It is determined by the internal constitutional arrangements of each state so that, for example, the state of New South Wales has no sovereign status internationally and yet it has sovereignty over certain constitutionally defined aspects of government. The most important consideration is that the appropriate areas of sovereignty be allocated to appropriate levels of government and that the appropriate mechanisms for scrutiny be established.

Nor is the UN a particularly costly organisation when a comparison is made with money expended on a variety of other activities internationally. Indeed the opposite situation exists. The UN is deprived of funds to the point where its capacity to carry out the tasks demanded of it are put in jeopardy. The reform of the administrative and financial systems of the UN has been under way for over a decade. Many changes and cost savings have been made within the secretariat.

Many of the recommendations in the report emphasise the need for greater funding of the UN, the solution to the problem of how to achieve this is not clear or simple. The most obvious first step is the full payment on time of dues by member states but more assured funding is also necessary. More urgent attention to how this might be achieved is needed.

It was clear to the Committee that the role of the United States in this is critical. The United States has not always fulfilled its leadership role, has opted out of the responsibilities inherent in its size and wealth and at times has been careless of the sensibility of other nations in the world community. The Committee notes President George W Bush's words during the recent Presidential election campaign: 'If we are arrogant, they will resent us'.

However, two areas continue to be intractable. One is the achievement of more assured sources of income and the other involves structural reform of the Security Council, particularly the privileged position of the Five Permanent Members. This is a situation that affects the organisation's capacity to respond rapidly and consistently to crises around the world. And, as it represents an outdated distribution of world power, it undermines the legitimacy of the organisation as a representative world body.

It is in the area of responding to crises that the UN has experienced most strain since the end of the Cold War. Peacekeeping has changed from the relatively rare maintenance of ceasefire lines to more frequent demands for humanitarian intervention, often in disputes within a nation's borders. The changes have been sudden, the situations facing the UN complex and the operations expensive. There have been failures as well as successes and these failures have been damaging to the UN's reputation. It appears to the committee that huge changes have been made to the modus operandi of the UN in the light of lessons learned, particularly from Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. The Brahimi report into UN peace operations, has offered a thorough analysis of how the UN might respond more effectively to these situations. The report's recommendations included clearer and stronger mandates, proper planning for operations to include peace building strategies, greater professionalism and sufficient funding and staffing for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

The massive cost of peace operations has led to a re-evaluation of the importance of preventive strategies - aid and development, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the deterrent factor of a permanent International Criminal Court.

There are complex structures in place at the UN to deal with these matters. Some like the Human Rights Treaty Bodies or the Specialised Agencies dealing with poverty or disease are short of funds to complete their tasks or in need of administrative review to make them more workable. Another, like the proposed International Criminal Court, has not yet entered-into-force, but offers a carefully considered extension to the rule of law in the sphere of international relations, concerning the four areas of its jurisdiction - crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

Given the imperatives of globalisation, the committee believes that remaining fully committed to the United Nations is the only choice; international agreements, conventions and international regulatory institutions to which states choose to surrender some of their sovereignty have become essential for the well being of all states. The United Nations is the only organisation that can fulfil these urgent and proliferating transnational issues

Australian support for the organisation is consistent with our history and with our understanding of the value of the UN to small and middle-sized powers. It has the potential to provide a more ordered and just international relations in which smaller powers have some influence over the realpolitik of the great powers. It increases our influence in the world and serves to promote our national interests.

We have prided ourselves on our role as the good international citizen and the committee believes that we should continue that role. This would include Australian support for the reform processes of the UN - streamlined administration, efficient financial management and transparent and accountable systems - as well as a more representative structure in the various organs of the UN, particularly the Security Council. It should involve continued contributions to and support for the funds and agencies that promote social and economic development and an encouragement of other nations to support these agencies of the UN.

The committee believes that, as the UN becomes more important in the amelioration of some of the negative effects of globalisation, it is important that the work of the UN and Australia's role in the organisation should be understood by Australians. This will ensure that there is a sound and accurate knowledge among Australians of the work of the UN and that Australians more readily understand what is being done on their behalf in their interests in the international arena.

To this end, the Committee is proposing that the work of the UN and Australia's role in it become the subject of an annual public hearing conducted by this Committee. This will allow scrutiny, public discussion and a report to and debate in the Parliament on a regular basis.

List of Recommendations

Chapter 3    Peace operations

Recommendation 1

The committee recommends that Australia should only commit support to peace operations where there is:

Recommendation 2

The committee recommends that the Australian Government support and encourage other members states in the UN to expand both the personnel and financial capacity of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, in particular through the reintroduction of a system of gratis personnel and/or the specific funding of places from the regular budget for a Deployable Headquarters within the department.

Recommendation 3

The committee recommends that:

Chapter 4    A United Nations Standing Army

Recommendation 4

The committee endorses the amendment of the Defence Act 1903 to include reference to peace operations.

Recommendation 5

The committee does not support the concept of a United Nations Standing Army and recommends that the Australian Government continue to consider requests for military assistance from the United Nations on a case-by-case basis.

Recommendation 6

The committee recommends that the Department of Defence give consideration to approaching regional countries with a view to conducting joint military exercises specifically focused on UN peace operations.

Chapter 6    Preventive Action and Aid

Recommendation 7

The Committee recommends that the Australian Government develop a whole of Government strategy addressing the role of preventive action within Australia's foreign policy, including:

Recommendation 8

The committee recommends that the Australian Government:

Chapter 7    Human Rights

Recommendation 9

The committee recommends that the Australian Government:

Chapter 8    The International Criminal Court

Recommendation 10

The committee commends the Australian Government for its contribution to the development of the International Criminal Court and recommends that the Government ratify the Statute of Rome as soon as possible.

Recommendation 11

The committee recommends that the Australian Government pursue with reluctant member states a clarification of the outstanding issues of concern to them and use its good offices to persuade member states to ratify the Statute of Rome.

Chapter 9    The Structural Reform of the UN

Recommendation 12

The committee recommends that the Australian Government continue to work for an expansion of the Security Council, including new permanent seats without veto power, for South America and the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.

Recommendation 13

The committee recommends that the Australian Government support moves within the United Nations to limit the use of the veto power by the existing permanent members in the Security Council and that member states which use the veto should be required to justify its use to the General Assembly.

Recommendation 14

The committee recommends that, in the absence of the Security Council giving any consideration to the abolition of the veto, the Australian Government support discussion in the relevant forums of the United Nations in order to establish:

Recommendation 15

The committee acknowledges the efforts of the Secretary-General to reform the administration of the UN and encourages Australia to continue to support the Secretary-General in the implementation of the program aimed at greater efficiency, accountability and independence in the Secretariat.

Chapter 10    The Financial Reform of the United Nations

Recommendation 16

The committee recommends that the Australian Government urge the United Nations to:

Chapter 11    Australia and the United Nations

Recommendation 17

The committee recommends that the Government continue to support the electoral work of the AEC in UN missions but that principles of operation be developed which reflect the best practice for successful missions and that these be adhered to in any decision to deploy AEC officers or resources to future UN missions.

Recommendation 18

The committee endorses the announcements made by the Australian Government in April 2001 that it intends to conduct workshops with other member states in the UN to achieve:

Recommendation 19

Given Australia's laudable record of support for UN human rights treaties, a majority of the committee recommends that the Australian Government proceed with the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Recommendation 20

The committee recommends that the government recommence the practice of referring all Australia's periodic reports to the UN treaty body committees to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade for inquiry and report to the Parliament.

Recommendation 21

The committee recommends that the Government continue to support the position of a youth representative at the General Assembly and that the position be fully funded for a prescribed period of time each year.

Recommendation 22

The committee recommends that the Australian Government consider providing increased funding for both the United Nations Association of Australia and United Nations Youth Association so that they might properly assist the government in providing information on the United Nations to the Australian public.

Recommendation 23

The Committee recommends that, as part of a review of the annual report of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the annual report of the Department of Defence, the joint committee conduct an annual public hearing at a set time during the year on Australia's activities at the UN, with particular reference to: