Letter from New York

Four days after Australia was successfully elected to the Security Council for a two-year term I was in New York myself for consultations with the Secretary General and other United Nations officials.

Four days after Australia was successfully elected to the Security Council for a two-year term I was in New York myself for consultations with the Secretary General and other United Nations officials.

For over four years I’ve worked for the United Nations as an Under Secretary General with the title Special Adviser to the Secretary General on Cyprus. It’s a hard job by any standards. The task is to help achieve the objective set by the UN Security Council of re-uniting Cyprus after 38 years of division.

There’s a specific formula for the re-unification but years of distrust, antipathy and mutual blame make it hard work; in some respects the hardest job I’ve taken on. That’s a story for another time. Cyprus is, after all, one of the world’s three or four most intractable problems. Over those four years, I’ve come to know the UN, warts and all. It is an imperfect organisation. It has its administrative weaknesses, it often disappoints a hopeful world and it has made mistakes. But for all that, it has its strengths. The UN is imbued with a sense of idealism; a belief that it is serving the best interests of humanity. Its policies may sometimes be flawed, it may disappoint even, but it is driven by good intentions. It wants disputes settled peacefully, it abhors violence, it fights poverty and crime, it promotes civil liberties especially in oppressive societies.

And it does something more; it brings together almost all the countries of the world in a single forum where they all get a say, from the United States to Samoa. At the heart of the UN is the Security Council. Its resolutions are one of the bases of international law, of the rules-based international political system. And at the heart of the Security Council are its five permanent members: Britain, the United States, Russia, China and France. They all have a veto. Nothing can happen without their approval.

Then there are the other ten non-permanent members, from next year including us. They can, collectively, block any initiative of the five permanent members but they can’t act without them. It’s a fairly weak position but there’s no doubt about it; it’s a good forum to be in. You attend meetings of huge importance; you can express a point of view, argue a case and try to persuade others.

Personally I was pretty excited when Australia was elected to the Security Council. I did my bit. Without my own UN hat, I asked a number of foreign ministers for their support. And I had someone in New York wake me up with the result – I was asleep in Australia at the time. As a senior UN official, I go before the Security Council once every six months to report on Cyprus. It will be nice next year to report to a familiar Australian figure – an Ambassador who at one time used to work for me.

To be frank, the election this time shouldn’t have been difficult. It would have been extraordinary if we had lost. We did lose in 1996 just months after I became the foreign minister. That time we ran against Sweden – which itself had lost four years earlier – and Portugal. Portugal has extensive links around the world having once been a global power. Interestingly, Portugal is again on the Security Council right now.

There are two other reasons why our victory was a virtual certainty. One is that at the last elections two years ago, two EU countries were elected and Canada defeated. There isn’t in the minds of the UN a country more like Canada than Australia. Some UN officials laughingly call Canada Australia on ice!

For UN members to have once more elected two EU members and this time rejected Australia was almost out of the question. And secondly, without being disrespectful of Finland and Luxembourg, the problems of the euro and the weakness of the European economy more generally has made the EU a little less popular than it once was. In this case, that’s a bit ironic because both Finland and Luxembourg are amongst the EU’s best performing economies.

But even if it was easy to win, we did and for that I’m glad. It isn’t proof, though, that we are wildly popular or a good international citizen all of a sudden. We didn’t beat everyone! We only beat Finland and Luxembourg! Rwanda won as well in a different ballot.

Our two years on the Security Council will be a window into the machinations of the UN. We’ll learn a lot more about it. And one of the things we’ll learn is this: the UN is only as strong as its member states will allow it to be. If it can’t agree on Syria it is rendered powerless. When it did agree on Libya or Afghanistan in 2001, it made a huge difference.

But there’s one thing to say about the UN: if it didn’t exist, you’d invent it.

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