Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

11 March 2009

Speech to the United Nations Parliamentary Association

Thank you, Ms Melissa Parke MP, Chair of the United Nations Parliamentary Association for the invitation to address this meeting.

I warmly welcome the establishment of the United Nations Parliamentary Association.  It is a fitting recognition of the important place of the United Nations in Australia’s national interests and foreign policy and of your interest in and contribution to Australia’s engagement in the multilateral system. 

Members and Senators of the Parliament of Australia have long played a valuable role supporting the Government’s engagement with the United Nations, as Parliamentary Advisers to the Australian Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, participating in the General Assembly’s proceedings each year. 

The establishment of this Association will provide a further opportunity for the Parliament to enhance its engagement with the work of the United Nations and its support for Australia’s role in the United Nations system.

The United Nations has a critical role to play in the global struggle for a peaceful, secure world free from poverty, disease and famine. 

For these reasons the Australian Government will work to ensure that the United Nations and its agencies fulfil their potential as agents for economic and social reform, for peace and as a protector of human rights. 

And as we do this, the United Nations will necessarily occupy a vital place in the way we pursue our national and global interests. 

Australia and the United Nations

The Government has made it clear that it is committed to reinvigorating Australia’s engagement with the United Nations.

Today I want to outline briefly our policy on the United Nations, what we have done to implement it and the way ahead.

The Government’s commitment to increasing engagement is based on Australia’s long and proud history of engagement with the United Nations.

Australia was among the most forthright and influential of the UN’s founding nations.  Through then Foreign Minister Doc Evatt, Australia was also among the most vocal advocates of the interests of small and medium sized nations, and a United Nations Security Council free of veto powers. 

In particular, Evatt’s influence is reflected in Article 56 of the United Nations Charter, which deals with ‘higher standards of living, full employment and conditions of economic and social progress and development’. In recognition of Evatt’s contribution this became known as the ‘Australian pledge’.

Today, the world faces increasingly complex global challenges, such as international development, climate change, food security, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, conflict and now the global financial crisis.

These are global challenges that no one country can address on its own.  Indeed the increasingly complex and transnational nature of these challenges means the need for an effective multilateral system has only grown over time.

Engagement with the United Nations is vital because of its role in setting global standards on a wide range of issues, from human rights to the use of force in settling international disputes.  The United Nations has a key role in maintaining peace and security, from the United Nations Security Council, to conflict prevention, to peace-keeping operations, to arms control negotiations.

Engagement to date and the way ahead

The Government has worked hard to enhance Australia’s engagement with the United Nations and multilateral system more generally. 

The Prime Minister and I attended the 63rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2008.  Mr Rudd signed the instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol as the first act of Government and the Government has actively engaged in international climate change negotiations since then.  The Government also decided to issue a standing invitation to United Nations Human Rights experts to visit Australia.

Australia supports the critical role that United Nations agencies play in leading global efforts to progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.

In last year’s budget the Government announced an additional $200 million over four years in dedicated funding to key United Nations agencies such as UNICEF and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 

This commitment enables Australia to contribute directly to work on issues as diverse as increasing child literacy, improving maternal and child health and the empowerment of women in countries beyond our own region.

On Sunday, International Women’s Day, Tanya Plibersek, Minister for the Status of Women, and I committed over $17 million from this additional funding to UNIFEM to address inequality between men and women.

This will support programs to reduce women’s poverty and exclusion, end violence against women, reverse the spread of HIV and AIDS among women and girls and support women’s leadership.

Today I am pleased to announce a further allocation, in part from the $200 million Budget allocation, of $68 million over four years which will be applied to support the work of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help tackle extreme poverty and achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

UNDP is a very important development partner for Australia in Asia Pacific, playing a critical role in the promotion of democratic governance, human rights and crisis prevention.

The additional funding will enable us to build on our work with UNDP, in areas such as supporting elections in Cambodia and promoting law and justice in East Timor and Afghanistan.

Our deepening engagement with the United Nations is also demonstrated through our involvement with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  Australia will assume chairmanship of the Donor Support Group from mid 2009.

The Government’s decision to seek a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council seat (2013-14) is a further concrete example of our commitment to the United Nations.  It reflects our belief that Australia can and should make a contribution

We are well placed to do so.  We are a key player in the Asia-Pacific region, and can bring an important, if not unique, perspective to the Council.  We are an energetic and creative contributor to peacekeeping.  And we are a country more than capable of doing its bit on international peace and security.

Strengthening the United Nations

Our commitment to greater United Nations engagement is based on a realistic assessment of Australia’s interests and of what the United Nations and multilateral system can and does deliver for us.

It is fair to say that the United Nations and its agencies have sometimes struggled to live up to the hopes and aspirations of its founders.  It is a complex bureaucracy by any standard, encompassing a multiplicity of agencies and programs, a multinational staff, and peace-keeping operations across the globe.

The UN’s responsibility extends to helping 192 countries find common ground on issues as broad and diverse as from climate change to patent registration.

It would be easy to join the ranks of those carping from the sidelines, for the United Nations presents itself as an easy target for criticism.

I am pleased to count Australia among those working hard to strengthen the United Nations system, to build the UN’s capability and responsiveness to the needs of its member states

Much of our focus is on improving the effectiveness, efficiency and accountability of United Nations operations.  And I am pleased to note that Australia led successful action on human resources management reform last December.

In this regard, we welcome and support Secretary-General Ban’s structural reform efforts, including within the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Political Affairs. 

Operational reforms such as these are vital to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the United Nations bureaucracy.  They are particularly vital to efforts to maximise the UN’s impact on the ground.

Australia is also striving for reform of key organs including the United Nations Security Council.  Inter-governmental negotiations on United Nations Security Council reform have recently commenced, and Australia is actively participating.

It is now some sixty years after the UN’s foundation.  We want to see a Council that better reflects the realities of today’s world.

Australia supports the bids of Japan and India to become permanent members of an expanded Security Council, as well as appropriate permanent representation for Africa and Latin America.

Reform of the Security Council is important in addressing the understandable concerns of many states about the United Nations Security Council’s representation and authority.

Security Council reform is vital, along with broader reform, to ensuring the United Nations and multilateral system is better placed to meet the challenges and demands of the 21st Century.

While reform of the Security Council will no doubt require negotiation over time, in the interim, we believe reforms to improve the Council’s working methods should be pursued.

The United Nations Parliamentary Association

Given our long history of engagement with the United Nations, it is surprising that it has taken so long to establish a Parliamentary Association devoted to it.

I commend your initiative.

Members and Senators of the Australian Parliament have long been involved with the United Nations, both in our official duties and, particularly in Ms Parke’s case, before entry to Parliament.

Your Association provides a new level of engagement with the United Nations and has some important roles to play.  Domestically, I encourage you to highlight to Australians the value of the United Nations to our nation’s interests and welfare, and the importance of deepening our engagement.  Internationally, I encourage you to tell everyone you meet that Australia is firmly committed to the multilateral system, with the United Nations at its core.

My Office and Department would, of course, be pleased to provide you with the briefing you need to take these messages forward.

Thank you, once again, for the invitation to address you today.