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Statement for the United Nations Association of Australia Annual Conference

Statement by H.E. Gary Quinlan, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations.

 

I’m sorry I now can’t attend the annual conference.  As Russell Trood, the President of the UN Association of Australia will have explained the calling of the elections brings the Caretaker provisions for Government into play which constrains officials like me from public commentary during a political campaign.  A sophisticated safeguard in our democracy, and a good one. 

I know I don’t need to make the point to the UNAA about how necessary the UN itself remains.  You’re here because you know it and probably because you want to make it work better.  US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said to Security Council members two weeks ago – during the US Presidency of the Council – that if the UN did not exist it would be necessary to invent it.  Not an original line, of course.  But a truism.  And one that always bears repeating. 

The truth is if we tried to invent the UN today, we would not be able to.  There’s zero chance that 193 countries – almost four times the number that were at the 1945 San Francisco conference – could today negotiate and consent to bind themselves to a document as ambitious and transformative as the UN Charter.  And one that has actually accommodated dramatic global change. 

In the contemporary UN, issues of development, practical economic and social imperatives, and new transnational threats – nuclear proliferation, environmental damage, terrorism – have become the locus of UN activity, replacing the earlier political agenda dominated by issues such as decolonisation and anti-racism, and the gamesmanship of the Cold War. 

We’ve also seen many new players enter the global field: the rise of stronger regional organizations, the growth of civil society, and an increasing role for the private sector in tackling global issues.

The contemporary UN agenda is overloaded, negotiations typically take too much time, and the UN bureaucracy itself can be frustrating.  But all this is inevitable.  The UN can only be what Member States themselves allow.  The challenge is to look at how we can enhance the structure and workings of the UN – seeking to reform, cajole and further strengthen its institutional framework and intellectual capacity to at least match, and hopefully anticipate, the challenges of a very different world.

I want to say a few words about the UN Security Council now that we are again a member, after 27 years. 

The primordial purpose of the UN is, of course, to prevent war.  The UN grew out of the most violent century in history.  The level of conflict between states has now declined dramatically but conflict within states has increased.  The Charter gives the Security Council primary responsibility for international peace and security and it is the only international body legally mandated to authorise the use of force.  It has the power to create law binding on all Member States.  It has created Tribunals to hold individuals liable for internationally defined crimes.  It runs 13 sanctions regimes, and subsidiary bodies handling counter-terrorism and non-proliferation.  And working groups on issues such as children and armed conflict, and conflict prevention and resolution in Africa.  It regularly addresses cross-cutting issues such as women, peace and security.

This is a far more expansive role than when Australia was last a member in 1985-86 when – with the Cold War the compelling geopolitical dynamic – the Council was essentially stalemated and the veto regularly wielded.  The Council met on average once a week.  It had four peacekeeping missions with less than 2,500 deployed troops and police. 

Today, the Council mandates 15 peacekeeping missions, with around 100,000 uniformed peacekeepers – second only to the United States for the number of personnel deployed overseas.  It reviews each of these mandates at least annually, sometimes more frequently.  All up, it regularly reviews situations in around 40 countries.  Almost 70 per cent of its work focuses on Africa   In the first seven months of our membership the Council has met 217 times in one form or another and has renewed peacekeeping and sanctions regime mandates on 21 occasions.  Many of the peacekeeping missions are operating with multi-national forces in some of the most difficult environments imaginable – and, of course, where there is no alternative.

The revitalised mandate for the peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the new UN mission in Mali are historic.  In the case of the DRC a so-called Intervention Brigade of 3,000 troops has been created as part of the broader UN peacekeeping operation to protect civilians against rebel forces – essentially mandating possible offensive combat operations by UN forces for the first time.  In the case of Mali, UN forces are operating in an environment of asymmetric warfare where the UN could face suicide bombers and the threat from IEDs.   This is new territory for the UN, reflecting the changing nature of conflict and – in the DRC – past failures to stem a pattern of cyclical violence which has left over five million dead.

Most of the Council’s work is agreed among the members and has a reasonable success rate.  But it’s the Council’s failures which inevitably end up defining how it is seen.  Our failure over Syria is a huge stain.  It, of course, reflects the inherent tension within a body with five permanent members who have veto powers and hold what can be fundamentally divergent geopolitical interests. This starkly reinforces the need for change.

I leave it to you to make an assessment of how we are faring on the Council, but Australia is a very active player on its agenda.  Support for our election was high, reflecting both Australia’s historical contribution to the UN since its creation and expectations that we would make a strong contribution. 

At bottom, the UN is a necessary global instrument – most tellingly in its contribution on peace and security.  Many of its efforts remain aspirational – an inevitable but good thing.  It will always be imperfect.  But that’s unavoidable.  I think Dag Hammarkjöld – the second and probably most influential Secretary-General – got it right when he said that the United Nations was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.  I’ve yet to hear a persuasive rejoinder. 

Can I wish delegates the very best for the Conference.

 

 

 

 

 

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