IN the Democratic Republic of the Congo torn by civil war there are about 24,000 UN peacekeepers. These people are protecting civilians and building local capacity to conduct elections.
Today, the UN has the highest number of peacekeepers deployed in its history, about 120,000 in 15 operations. Their white four-wheel-drive vehicles and their blue helmets render them familiar. There have been about 66 UN peacekeeping operations since the first: supervision of the 1948 truce between Arab states and Israel.
Peacekeepers are on duty wherever the UN is called on to solve problems too big for local authority. They are there to maintain peace and protect civilians. They work with transitional governments to train police, restore justice and to uphold the rule of law. They enforce disarmament and monitor human rights and the conduct of elections. They appear on the ground as a result of a decision made by 15 members of the UN Security Council.
In October, the 193 members of the UN will vote to fill two seats allocated to the Western European and Others Group on the Security Council. Australia is one of three candidates. The decisions of the Security Council affect all nations of the world and will directly affect Australia's interests and Australian lives.
Australia has not had a seat at this table for more than 25 years, not since the end of the Cold War.
That's surprising because it could be said we punch above our weight as a contributor to UN peace operations and UN forums.
When I asked for the figures, I was told more than 65,000 Australians had served in more than 50 UN and other multilateral peace operations since 1947. Today, Australia is the 12th largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget and has more than 3000 personnel serving in peace and security operations across the globe.
In Bougainville, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, Australians have worked with regional partners to restore peace.
Australia led the intervention in East Timor in 1999, an action authorised by the Security Council. This year we celebrate East Timor's 10th anniversary of independence.
Then there is one of the largest and most complex UN peacekeeping exercises in its history: Cambodia. Last month, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen reminded me that foreign ministers Bill Hayden and Gareth Evans had driven the peace process. Here was a muddle of politics, bombing and invasion, civil war and, on a staggering scale, crimes against humanity.
Evans envisaged a new role for the UN: to set up an interim administration and an Australian, Lieutenant General John Sanderson was to command the military component of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia to implement the outcome of peace negotiations, under the Paris peace agreements.
I was reminded that Cambodia is itself contributing peacekeepers to UN operations in Africa.
Today, I am visiting the UN headquarters in New York to meet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and several UN ambassadors to discuss global challenges.
These include allegations of crimes against humanity in Syria, Iran's nuclear program and the UN's work in Burma as the country continues reform after the historic by-elections last week. They also include the crucial transition period in East Timor and sustainable development, ahead of a major summit in Brazil mid-year. A particular focus of mine will be protecting the world's oceans.
I will also be talking about the contribution Australia can make as a member of the Security Council. If elected for a two-year term we will be more involved in the transition to Afghan control of security forces.
We are likely also to wrestle with nuclear policy in respect of Iran and North Korea, as well as nuclear safety in general.
Beyond these specifics lies the noble goal of a world without nuclear weapons.
Yes, I know it may seem idealistic. But later this month in Istanbul, 10 states brought together initially by Australia and Japan will meet to discuss ways to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ultimately reach this goal.
On the Security Council, Australia would be able to contribute even more directly to global problem-solving, consistent with our national interests and values.
As an Asia-Pacific country, surrounded by countries and partners primarily from the developing world, we would also bring a different perspective from our friends in Europe.
It is a tough race. It always is in international forums.
Australia has a long history of contribution to the UN. We are a people of good and strong values. As a creative middle power, we will be an effective voice for the small and medium countries of the world and we will look to promote the interests of our nation and our region.
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