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Stepping up or stepping out? Australia’s future role at the UN

Image credit: Art L (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Through June and July this year, Australia participated in its second session as an elected member of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. Its election to the UNHRC last year is the most recent example of its increasing engagement with the UN, having been previously elected to the Security Council five times and participating in numerous high-level bodies and peacekeeping missions.

But this session was overshadowed by the sudden departure of the United States, citing the UNHRC’s alleged ‘motiva[tion] by political bias’ against Israel. Its departure from the Council marks yet another of Washington’s withdrawals from multilateral organisations, with it also departing from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action dealing with Iran and the Paris Climate Agreement. It has also withheld funding for UN specialised agencies, including cutting US$305 million of aid to the agency dealing with Palestinian refugees.

However, this diplomatic and financial vacuum may present Canberra with an opportunity to position itself as a new champion of multilateralism.

Bolstered by the US’ departure and increasing isolationism, nations such as Russia and China have been aiming to grow their influence within the UN. As this bureaucratic influence grows, and with China even courting nations with its own brand of Sino-centric multilateralism, the need to protect and reinforce already existing multilateral institutions is crucial.

Given Australia’s role as both a middle power and as a major partner in the Indo-Pacific, it is well positioned to counter the growing dominance of these powers through the UN system by engaging more actively with nations to build greater diplomatic and economic ties, and by advocating for the upholding of international law.

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper explains how international law and multilateralism helps to constrain coercive behaviour and ensure respect for norms and rules, emphasising the US’ role in upholding them. But with Washington’s apparent disdain for, and absence from, multilateral organisations, Canberra should consider taking a more active approach in upholding the international rules-based order and the multilateral organisations they are governed through.

Upon the US’ departure from the UNHRC, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made it clear that while it shared many of the US’ concerns, it remains within Australia’s interest to ‘work constructively’ with the Council to address growing human rights violations and to promote broader UN reform.

This is another crucial area in which Australia can work more proactively and can take a leading role. The UN system has been consistently criticised for its tangled web of bureaucracy, internal politics, financial mismanagement and a ’culture of impunity’ towards sexual abuse and exploitation within the organisation and its peacekeeping missions.

There are a number of micro and macro reforms that Canberra can begin to advocate for, not just to ultimately reform rectify the UN system’s numerous shortcomings, but to also place itself as a new champion of multilateralism. Canberra can first seek to do this by working with regional partners to implement Secretary-General António Guterres’ significant ten-point reforms of the UN system, which would provide a solid first step to future change.

Australia is also well-suited to further promote and protect the interests of its neighbours, especially those in the Pacific, within the UN system. The increasing strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific, and the growing dominance of China in building partnerships within the region, has meant that multilateralism is now critical in preventing the flouting of the international rules-based order, and the US’ growing unilateralism threatens this prevention.

Another key problem for nations in the Indo-Pacific in participating in the multilateral system is one of money and distance – for Pacific Island nations, for instance, the financial costs and travel distance to international organisations based in New York and Geneva can be highly restrictive. In many important organs, their representation is limited or not present at all, reducing broader Indo-Pacific representation.

With Australia’s consistent and high-level presence in numerous UN offices and conferences, Canberra has an opportunity to allow these voices and national representation to be more consistent and to protect multilateralism, especially on pressing issues such as climate change and the rights of women and minorities. It would also help to improve its own relations with the Indo-Pacific region, itself one of the central objectives of the Foreign Policy White Paper. This, in turn, could provide significant economic, military and political gains for both the Indo-Pacific and Canberra.

Australia may be reluctant to engage further within the UN, especially given consistent incoming criticism towards its controversial refugee policy and its treatment of indigenous people. Despite these slights, Australia should help to fill the gap left by the US’ departure from international organisations. It would not only provide a fresh voice for the region and bolster its reputation globally but also help to preserve a future for the rules-based international order. Whether Canberra has the political will to do so, however, remains unknown.

Euan Moyle is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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