Address to United Nations Association of Australia

  • Speech, E&OE

Thank you to the United Nations Association of Australia for your unstinting efforts spanning almost 70 years to advance the goals of the United Nations in Australia and around the world.

Australia does have a long and distinguished history of engagement with the United Nations across the full spectrum of its operations.

Tonight I will concentrate on our two-year term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which has been lauded internationally.

It is not a widely known fact that Australia was the first nation to hold the presidency of the Security Council, when our Ambassador presided over the inaugural meeting on 17 January 1946, at Church House, Westminster in London – prior to moving to its permanent home at UN Plaza in New York.

Sixty-seven years later, my first official act as Foreign Minister within a few days of my appointment was to preside over the 7036th meeting of the Security Council on 26 September 2013.

From the outset, Australia was committed to maintaining international peace and security with a particular focus on our region.

During our first term in 1947, we persuaded the Security Council to order a ceasefire between Indonesia and Dutch forces during the Indonesian War of Independence. Australia then joined the first ever peacekeeping mission of the United Nations to observe the ceasefire – one of several important steps that supported Indonesia's independence.

During our second term in 1956, we played an influential role which contributed to the settlement of the Suez Crisis.

A highlight of our third term in 1973-74 was the constructive role we played in the resolution of the Yom Kippur War.

Our fourth term in 1985-86 saw Australia take a lead role in drafting a resolution which provided a basis for ending the Iran-Iraq war some years later.

Importantly, our contribution has been to follow our principled positions on the Council with action on the ground.

Since 1946, Australia has provided more than 65,000 personnel to more than 50 multilateral peace and security operations.

We have had blue beret personnel in the Middle East since 1956 and in Cyprus since 1964.

Today, our peacekeepers serve under the UN flag in Afghanistan, Cyprus, the Golan Heights, Liberia and South Sudan.

When in Opposition, the Coalition expressed some concerns about the Labor Government's decision to launch a late bid for a temporary term on the Council for the period 2013/2014.

This was based on several concerns:

• It was contrary to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's advice that, as we would be a very late entrant to the race, there was a risk that significant votes may have already been committed to the nations that had nominated several years earlier;
• Australia would therefore, in our view, need to spend significantly more than otherwise to influence votes, thereby making the bid much more expensive; and
• There was a risk that long-standing bipartisan policy positions would be compromised.

These are perfectly valid concerns, and all were borne out to some degree.

However, I acknowledge the determination of then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose ability to lobby relentlessly is internationally renowned and I pay tribute to the outstanding work of our diplomats, particularly to former Ambassador to the UN Gary Quinlan who achieved an overwhelming win in the first round of voting at the UN.

Despite our misgivings, prior to the 2013 election I pledged that should the Coalition win government we would ensure that Australia serve its term on the United Nations Security Council with distinction.

I am proud to say that we achieved that aim and emphatically and I believe we exceeded expectations of the impact that we could have as a non-permanent member.

That assessment is not an idle boast.

It is based upon the comments and judgements of other nations around the world. Importantly, it was a view shared by the Permanent Five - the United States, the Russian Federation, China, the United Kingdom and France.

We demonstrated that an elected albeit temporary member can make a significant difference in the service of its nation and those people most affected by conflict.

Importantly, we used our term to advance our core national interests in the fight against terrorism, in curbing the illicit proliferation of weapons and lethal technology, and in responding to senseless acts of aggression that have put our citizens at risk.

We also contributed substantially to improving the functioning of the Security Council – which is in our fundamental interests.

In doing so, we deepened our relationships with our allies while strengthening ties with non-traditional partners.

We stayed true to our values while delivering on our commitment to place the need to protect civilians, especially women and children, at the forefront of decisions made by the Council.

Our term on the Council came at a time of great challenge to the world.

The world now faces a larger number of simultaneous security and humanitarian crises with a broader impact on more people than at any time since the Second World War.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon advised me last year that the world is facing the largest number of simultaneous conflicts since World War II, which is placing enormous strain on the ability of the UN to provide peace-building, peacekeeping and other support.

Many of the conflicts we are confronting today are transnational involving non-state armed groups whose actions are not sufficiently constrained by international law.

Extremist groups do not respect governments, national sovereignty, borders, laws or any norms of behaviour and, if left unchecked, pose a direct threat to the foundations of the system of nation states.

Now, more than ever, we need effective international cooperation to meet those challenges.

The Security Council – and the UN system more broadly – is critical to that cooperation.

As has been the case since the founding of the United Nations, relations between the Permanent Five members of the Council are key to determining outcomes in the Council.

The limitations of the Council in situations where one of the Permanent Five is directly involved in a conflict were made apparent when the Ukraine crisis erupted in 2014.

Despite the challenges, Australia demonstrated that we could use Council membership to achieve outcomes that make a substantive contribution to the maintenance of international peace and security.

We drove a strong international response to the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 over Ukraine on 17 July 2014 – an incident in which 38 Australian citizens and residents were killed.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Australia authored and led negotiations on a resolution - adopted unanimously as UNSC Resolution 2166 on 21 July 2014 - which condemned the downing of flight MH17.

At Australia's insistence, the resolution called on separatists at the crash site to ensure the bodies of the victims were treated with dignity and respect.

The resolution also underlined the need for a full, thorough and independent investigation into the crash and demanded all military activities in the area cease to enable access to the site.

Resolution 2166, adopted just days after the crash, was the first Council resolution on Ukraine since the outbreak of conflict in February 2014. It was a mammoth effort.

Our instructions to draft a resolution were given to our team in New York on Friday 18 July. The draft was circulated on 19 July. I arrived in New York to join with Gary Quinlan and take part in negotiations on 20 July, and it was adopted - unanimously - on 21 July. I will never forget the moment when each member representative of the Security Council, particularly Russia, raised their hand to support the resolution.

The atmosphere was electric - uncertain as to the outcome, it was a tense and sombre moment - the deaths of the 298 passengers and crew on board that flight weighing heavily on our minds.

The resolution was a vital point of pressure on those who controlled the crash site to allow access for investigators from Australia and other countries and enabled the victims of flight MH17 to be repatriated and returned to their loved ones.

Australia has a direct interest in the full implementation of Resolution 2166 and will continue working with our partners on the Council, including current members Malaysia and New Zealand, to ensure this occurs.

I pay tribute to the tireless work of our diplomats, led by our very capable and competent UN Ambassador Gary Quinlan for the duration of our term to achieve this outcome.

Australia also worked diligently during its term to ensure the Council remained focused on countering terrorism and violent extremism – an issue in which Council action directly supported Australia's national security interests, particularly the threat posed to Australia by foreign terrorist fighters.

We led the Security Council's Al-Qaida sanctions committee, refocusing attention on using the Al-Qaida sanctions regime as a serious enforcement and counter-terrorism tool.

During our Presidency in 2014, we also took a lead on negotiations to establish an action plan to accelerate the implementation of nations' obligations contained in UN Security Council Resolutions 2170 and 2178 on countering terrorism and disrupting funding to Daesh (also known as ISIL) and the Al-Nusrah Front.

When Australia commenced its term in January 2013, divisions between the Permanent Five over Syria cast a long shadow over the Council.

In Australia's view the Council needed to overcome its divisions on Syria and act - too many civilians were being killed and injured, particularly at the hands of the Syrian military, for the Council to remain silent.

Working with like-minded members, Australia arranged for the Council to be regularly briefed on the humanitarian and human rights dimensions of the conflict, including its devastating impact on Syrian women and children.

This led to a series of agreements on the need for enhanced humanitarian access and better protection of civilians.

Following negotiations led by Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan, Resolution 2165 enabled UN agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance across borders without the consent of the Syrian authorities – the first resolution of its kind.

The extension of this mandate to the end of 2015 has provided the UN system with the means to respond more effectively to the world's worst humanitarian crisis and helped reduce the suffering of the Syrian people.

Australia also worked tirelessly to bring new issues to the attention of the Council.

In late 2014, we took a leadership role in placing the broader political and human rights situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on the Council's agenda for the first time. This allows the Council to take action in response to the continuing mass human rights violations perpetrated by North Korea and identified in the findings of the UN Commission of Inquiry report chaired by Australia's former High Court Justice The Hon Michael Kirby.

During our Presidency in September 2013, we authored and led negotiations on a resolution to curb the illicit transfer of small arms and light weapons – the first of its kind – following the success of the Arms Trade Treaty.

Australia secured unanimous agreement to Resolution 2185 – another first - which will ensure an enduring focus by the United Nations on the significant contribution which effective policing makes to peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

And again, another first, we helped secure ground-breaking mandates for robust peacekeeping including in Mali, in the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Each of these achievements is testament to Australia's brand of effective diplomacy – innovative and firmly focussed on outcomes.

Our approach was underpinned by the belief that we should use Council membership to pursue practical and principled measures to improve the lives of the world's most vulnerable people.

Since the UN was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, the world has seen unprecedented growth and improvement.

In 70 years, more people have been lifted out of poverty, more people have been educated, fewer people have died from disease, fewer women have died in childbirth and fewer children have died in the first five years of life.

The international architecture that has helped deliver these advances was hard won – from the ashes and horror of WWII, through compromise, diplomatic effort, commitment, the building of trade and investment ties, the opening up of borders, and the acceptance of difference in the name of a greater good.

We have built an international rules based order through care, patience, diligence and effort.

The price that was paid to build that architecture and enshrine our values – predicated most precisely on the principle of universal human rights – was the true horror of that war and the millions of lives lost.

The United Nations Charter explicitly acknowledges that debt. It pays to reflect on the words of The Charter:

"We the people of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war that.. has brought untold sorrow to mankind, to reaffirm the faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom."

Our challenge now is to recognise that this is not a given; that we must remain vigilant and resolute; and repeatedly reaffirm our collective commitment to work together.

The role that the United Nations plays is an integral part of our rules based order.

It embodies the vision and the commitment of its members to uphold the rule of law, and to uphold the system of nation-states that brought it into being.

Our systems enshrine citizenship and democracy.

We believe, fiercely, in certain things - the rule of law, equality before the law, property rights, individual freedom, democracy.

At the international level, it is the system of nation states that has – on balance – been the foundation of humanity's efforts to build peaceful, safe and prosperous societies.

We aren't naïve – of course the system has many flaws.

Some of the worst crimes against peoples are committed by states and in the name of states, and some have systems that are shockingly flawed.

But it has nevertheless delivered greatly improved circumstances for much of humanity, and it is a system that is worth defending.

On behalf of our UN Security Council team, I am proud of what Australia achieved in this term on the United Nations Security Council. I thank again former UN Ambassador Gary Quinlan for his extraordinary leadership.

We took our values to the world, in a measured, collaborative, practical and determined fashion. Those values were our foundation during many difficult debates and decisions, and they served us well.

We used the Security Council to serve our national interests and to garner international support for our priorities.

We drove important and timely initiatives – and we were an unwavering advocate for human rights, civilian safety, humanitarian objectives, peacekeeping, peace building, and the importance of the rule of law, presiding in peace time and in times of conflict and instability.

Australia has enhanced its reputation as a country which can use its influence and relationships to make a positive contribution to global security.

And we should be proud of the positive and distinctive contribution by Australia to the Council's work in maintaining international peace and security.

Looking ahead, Australia is now positioned well for our future engagement across the United Nations system, where we will continue to pursue the important aims embodied by our work on the Council.

This includes pushing for further international cooperation on counter-terrorism, establishing more effective humanitarian responses to crises, enhancing protections for civilians who find themselves caught up in conflict.

It also entails supporting efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of both United Nations peacekeeping and peacebuilding, including pursuing further measures to ensure women are more deeply engaged.

We must continue to work together to protect the order we value, and to explain its worth to those who may not understand.

I congratulate our team, and the legacy we have built through our tenure on the United Nations Security Council.

It has been one of finest manifestations of Australian values on the global stage and the prosecution of those values for the betterment of all.

I am currently scoping the opportunities for our next term on the United Nations Security Council.

We must continue our work, with resolve, clear-eyed and hard-headed, and be ready to defend the values which have delivered peace and prosperity, to ensure that our rules-based international order endures.

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