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Replacing neglect with engagement

The preamble to the UN Charter sets high aspirations for the organisation and its member states.

We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights … 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 … have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.

Four purposes are identified for the UN: peace, human rights, the rule of law, and social and economic progress. It is striking that the first paragraph of the UN Charter contains a commitment to respecting treaties. Failure to honour this commitment was the central political reason for opposition to the American-led invasion of Iraq. Rejection of international law by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia threw the international system into disarray.

In the General Assembly in September 2003, UN General Secretary Kofi Annan said that ‘We have come to a fork in the road’. He rejected the doctrine that states have the right to use force pre-emptively, without the agreement of the Security Council. The international community has to choose whether to accept this deviation or to continue on the formally ‘agreed basis’. He made another powerful statement in the Assembly in September 2004 on just one theme, the centrality of complying with the international rule of law.
Since Australia was one of only a few countries to send troops to support the US during the invasion of Iraq, the decisions of the Australian Government during the next year on these issues will be unusually important. By discarding international law and denouncing international institutions Australia has become less secure, as has the US. Similarly, our condemnation of other countries and of the UN has antagonised not only our neighbours in Asia but also the Europeans.

There has been great anguish in being an Australian working at the UN in recent years, and hearing the assertive self-righteousness of Australian speakers, and the gentle criticism of other delegates in response. Our country has become an impediment to the effective work of the UN. Obsequious support for American unilateralism, opposition to control of greenhouse gas emissions, denigration of the Human Rights Commission, and neglect of the UN’s work on economic, social and environmental policy has disappointed developed and developing countries alike.

Two of many possible examples illustrate the problem. In March 2002 the Australian Government sent a parliamentary secretary to head its delegation to the International Conference on Finance for Development in Mexico. In contrast, the US delegation included President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill. Australia was the only developed country other than Portugal not represented by a minister, and deceitfully described its representative as the Australian Minister for Development Cooperation.

A very recent example was the failure of Australia to be represented at the meeting on Action against Hunger and Poverty called by Presidents Lula and Chirac at the UN on 20 September 2004. That meeting was attended by over 50 heads of state or government and by cabinet ministers from many other countries including the US. But there was no nameplate for Australia. It was reasonable that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer not attend because the meeting was during the election campaign, but the Australian Ambassador to the UN, John Doath, should have participated.

There have been positive policies also such as advocacy of international support for the independence of East Timor and participation in the UN peacekeeping force, support for the International Criminal Court despite intense US opposition, and engagement with the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. But these activities are not what Australia is now best known for internationally.

Many additional constructive policies are possible and feasible. Seven practical possibilities follow. First, Australia needs a more mature strategy for contributing to global security, and reaffirmation to a rules-based international order is a vital component of that need. One of the principal requirements is for international society to reaffirm preferences for peaceful conflict resolution rather than violence, negotiation rather than confrontation, and the rule of law rather than domination by the US.

The high-level panel established by Kofi Annan released their report in December, ‘A more secure world: Our shared responsibility’. There will be intense debate about their proposals in the early months of 2005, and there will be  major input to the global summit planned for the start of the UN General Assembly in September 2005. That summit will be an opportunity for all countries to make a new commitment to a rules-based international system. Will Australia be ready by then to reaffirm a prime commitment to a multilateral order?
Second, the Australian Government needs to renew Australia’s traditional commitment to multilateralism through improved accountability. The Minister for Foreign Affairs could make regular statements to Parliament on Australian action at the UN, and other ministers could report on action at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization, UNESCO and so on. Such statements should include a record of how Australia voted.

Third, there is an urgent need to put terrorism into perspective, if only because it can generate exaggerated fears: for example, there have been no deaths from terrorism within Australia. This is despite the fact that we all know Australians have become more vulnerable when overseas, not least because of the Government’s support for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

A sophisticated, multifaceted strategy is required for tackling terrorism including: homeland defence; pursuit and punishment of terrorists; action within countries of origin, supported, whenever sought, from outside; addressing the political repression and exclusion that causes grievances; tackling injustice, poverty and despair through major upgrading of programs for social and economic development.

Increases in military spending contribute little to such a campaign. In fact, they add to the dangers. It is clear that the military dominance of the US adds to the risk that it will take improper military action. US military expenditure has grown massively, doubling annual military research and development to $70 billion in the last three years. This is 50 times the annual UN budget of $1.4 billion. America cannot at once be as powerful as it boasts and as vulnerable as it fears.

Fourth, Australia would do well to reconsider planned increases in military expenditure. There are more cost-effective ways of reducing risks and assisting development. Restraint of military expenditure could release funds for desperately needed economic and social assistance to other countries.

Fifth, the world is richer now than ever before in human history and has unprecedented technological capacity. Yet, despite the opportunity such global wealth creates, half of humankind still lives on less than two dollars a day, in or close to poverty. They are certainly suffering from deprivation, often severe, of many kinds, and insecurity is widespread in poor and even in rich countries. Inequality of income, wealth, and power, between and within most countries, is high and commonly growing.

The Special Session of the General Assembly held in Geneva in June 2000 set the first global target of halving serious poverty by 2015. These targets have been summarised into the Millennium Development Goals, which the UN system and most countries have adopted. But Australia has not so far.

So sixth, we must restore Australia’s fine record of well-judged contributions to international peacemaking and peacekeeping, economic and social development, environmental conservation, and human rights. It is vital that we build on those past achievements, by sharply increasing aid from the current and pitiful 0.26 per cent of national income, and by seeking other additional sources of finance for development such as joining with the growing number of countries supporting the introduction of a currency transaction tax.

Seventh, nuclear weapons, not terrorism, continue to be the major threat to global survival. Yet the Bush Administration has both abrogated the treaty limiting anti-ballistic missile systems, to facilitate research on missile defence, and revived the idea of developing nuclear weapons for first use rather than for defence. This resumed research into ‘bunker-busting’ nuclear weapons reverses a ten year ban on research into weapons with a yield of less than five kilotons. The very existence of the Non Proliferation Treaty is under threat. The review conference next year is vital.

Three UN conferences during 2005 that will provide opportunities for expression of commitments to a better world are the summit meeting at the start of the General Assembly in September; the review conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty; and the high-level segment of the General Assembly on Finance for Development. 2005 could be the year in which the global community returns to an orderly approach to international relations and strengthens effective commitment to international peace and justice. Australia could contribute to that effort to renew the international system and strengthen the possibility of peace and justice.

John Langmore is a former member of the House of Representatives and was a Director within the UN system in New York for seven years. His email address is jvl1@bigpond.net.au.


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