Kevin Rudd has announced Australia is bidding for one of two available seats on the UN Security Council for a two year period commencing in 2013. The Prime Minister made the announcement after a two-hour meeting with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon in New York overnight. Rudd told reporters that to be an effective member of the UN, Australia also needed to be an effective member of the Security Council. He has also pledged to help the joint UN/AU mission in Darfur with nine military officers and $5 million in aid.
But it was the Security Council candidacy that gained the most attention. It will not be straight-forward task. Although five seats are changed each year, each region has a specific allocation and Australia is part of a "West European and others" group, which has two seats. Finland and Luxembourg are also candidates for the 2013-14 selection and more western nations could also emerge. Australia has not been a member for 24 years and is attempting to overcome the hostility generated by eleven years of anti-UN posturing by the former Howard Government.
Rudd’s intention is a signal to the rest of the world that Australia is returning to full participation in the multilateral system. Writing in The Age academic John Langmore says the importance of the non-permanent Security Council seats should also not be underestimated. He says this was dramatically demonstrated by the opposition of most members to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, opposition that denied legality and legitimacy for the invasion.
The Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It is organised so as to function continuously, and a representative of each of its 15 members must be present at all times at UN Headquarters in New York. When a threat to peace is brought before the Council, its first action is usually to recommend the parties to reach agreement by peaceful means offering its services to investigate and mediate. If the dispute leads to violence, the Council is charged with ending it as soon as possible. It can issue ceasefire directives, send peace-keeping forces and decide on enforcement methods such as sanctions and military action.
The five permanent members of the councils are the victorious powers of World War II (US, Britain, Russia, China and France) and they joined by ten members who rotate every two years. The current non-permanent members are: Belgium, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Croatia, Indonesia, Italy, Libya, Panama, South Africa and Vietnam. Minor procedural matters require nine votes to carry a resolution. Major items also require nine votes with the significant difference that they must include all five permanent members. This is the famous veto power or “Great Power Unanimity” which was famously but unsuccessfully opposed by Australia on behalf of the small and middle powers.
Then Australian Labor government delegate H.V. Evatt lost that battle at the San Francisco Conference that drafted the UN Charter in 1945. However after three months of tireless effort from Evatt and others the Charter did become larger in scope, and contained provisions for the poor, the weak and the oppressed, provisions not intended by its original drafters. In 1948 Evatt was elected as the President of the UN General Assembly’s Third Session. During his year-long term, he oversaw the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Australia has been elected a member of the Security Council four times: in 1946 (a founder member), 1956, 1973 and 1985. Interestingly three of the four times have been under Labor governments with just one representation during Robert Menzies long reign as Prime Minister. Australia failed spectacularly in its most recent bid to join the Council. In 1996 its bid foundered due to the newly elected Howard’s government’s perceived closeness to Washington. Other factors included cuts to foreign aid and the race debate triggered by the rise of Pauline Hanson. In 2002 there was a push for Australia to challenge again in 2006 but with its sullied reputation in the Tampa and Pacific Solution affairs likely to count against it, the Howard Government did not risk the embarrassment.
Foreign Minister Stephen Smith has refused to confirm how much a new bid would cost. However former foreign minister Alexander Downer told the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this month he took a submission to cabinet in 2004 showing it would have cost $35 million to lobby for another two-year term beginning in 2008.
While Downer was keen to run, he was defeated by Howard and the Foreign Office because of the costly lobbying involved and the need to compromise foreign policy to woo votes. Opposition leader Brendan Nelson, speaking from his so-called “listening tour” of Australia, questioned the bid today for exactly the same two reasons. Smith was more circumspect saying the first step was just an expression of interest. "The things we have to do now and in the first instance can very much be done from within existing resources," he said.