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Australia and the UN: Contributing to the Rules-Based Order and Doing Good - Speech to the Australian Institute of International Affairs

16 October 2017

As a strong middle power, it’s in Australia’s interest to be part of the decision-making at the UN and the country’s recent election to the United National Human Rights Council is an opportunity to do good at the UN, in the region and at home.

By participating within the United Nations, Australia is well placed to define the rules, norms and standards of the international community.

I want to share with you why I think an international rules-based order is important, why Australia must be a part of it, based on my experiences as a parliamentary adviser at the United Nations General Assembly last year, and some of the challenges to that international order.

When we talk about Australia and the UN, of course Australia has been there since the beginning. In 1948, Doc Evatt was elected president of the General Assembly of the United Nations, the only Australian to have ever held the position. He presided over the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of human rights protection throughout the modern world.

Today the UN continues to provide a platform for Australia and member states to have a voice, while setting international norms and standards.

UN membership has grown from its original 51 members in 1945, to 193 today.

But a well-functioning multilateral system is needed now more than ever as globalisation proceeds and the world faces ongoing threats of modern slavery, child labour, natural disasters and food and water insecurity.

But progress in international cooperation is incremental so it’s important Australia sticks around for the long haul.

Whilst at the UN, I learnt about the hard work, skilled negotiation and bridge-building of our diplomats in our efforts to find common ground with one another. I came to the view that Australia’s role in negotiating resolutions and setting norms helps us pursue our own interests and maintain peace and stability in our region.

There are a number of examples of multilateralism and how it works.

The World Trade Organization and its capacity to administer and enforce global trade rules is widely recognised as a success of international cooperation.

Whilst at the UN last year, I witnessed heads of government coming together for a landmark refugee summit for the first time since the refugee convention in 1951, which resulted in the watershed New York Declaration that committed member states, including Australia, to negotiate a comprehensive refugee response framework for safe, orderly and regular migration by 2018.

And of course there was the recent groundswell of endorsement from 193 countries for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes at its heart the bold vision of 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and which came into force last year.

There is the unprecedented commitment by member states to the landmark Paris Agreement to address significant problems associated with global warming, food and water insecurity, and overpopulation.

Australia was there and signed up to all of these multilateral instruments—rightly so.

Except for the most recent multilateral treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, which opened for signature in September. Yet, ashamedly Australia didn’t even participate in the negotiations of the treaty.

However, I was pleased a key civil society organisation, ICAN, received the Nobel Peace Prize last week for its work on this treaty.

A key aspect of the international rules-based order is the development of international law through multilateral treaties. The United Nations secretary-general is the depository for more than 560 multilateral treaties. Australia is a signatory to 441 of them.

Yet, despite these achievements, the legitimacy of this international order is increasingly being challenged.

I think Australia’s contribution as a middle power to addressing these challenges is important.

Multilateralism was also challenged in 2003, when both the US and UK ignored the UN Charter requirement for a United Nations Security Council resolution and invaded Iraq, which Australia foolishly signed up to.

And now we find the US withdrawing from UNESCO after being the country that helped establish it.

The question is, how Australia will respond to this decision considering we are seeking a seat at the World Heritage Committee table next year?

Similarly, if we are to, for the first time, gain a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, which looks certain now that France has withdrawn its nomination, then Australia will have the opportunity to take a global leadership role on human rights issues and crises around the world, like that occurring in Myanmar right now.

Finally, revitalising the UN is the key to its survival. I now know that Australia is not only highly respected for its diplomacy, but also for its governance and bureaucratic structures that could help the UN in its much needed reform processes.

Throughout my three months at the UN, I became firmly of the view that for Australia to advance its own interests and help maintain peace in the region, it was important to be part of the decision-making process of setting international norms, standards and mechanisms and adhering to them.

That remains my view and in these uncertain times indeed I believe it is now more important than ever.