Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: Taking Council

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Colin Rubenstein


The successful conclusion of Australia's long-fought efforts to gain a temporary seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) is very welcome. Congratulations are due to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr, his deputy Richard Marles, and all the professionals who crafted a winning strategy - particularly in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean - to achieve this emphatic outcome.

Australia's success is well-deserved - as a middle-level, principled, democratic nation and good global citizen, we won the respect and ultimately the support of others internationally, on our own merits and without compromising our values or beliefs.

As the excitement subsides over the victory, there is no time to rest on our laurels. Australia's focus should now be shifting to the question of how to best use its energies at the UN over the next 24 months.

In a press release following the vote, Prime Minister Gillard noted that Australia's key priorities will include Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and North Korea. The statement also said that Australia will also work to ensure the effectiveness of UNSC sanctions regimes, including those targeting individuals associated with al-Qaeda.

So far, so good. Yet one important priority has not yet emerged - an acknowledgement of the need for Australia to actively promote much-needed reform at the UN.

This is desperately required to rehabilitate the dysfunctional, wasteful, often even corrupt processes and institutions of the UN so that the world body can adequately tackle the tasks that its founders intended.

Part of these efforts must be directed at addressing the systematic, entrenched and obsessive biases against Israel which have become institutionalised within the various branches of the world body.

These blatant biases can be found not only in the UN General Assembly and its various specialist committees, but in the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the office of the Secretary-General and countless other divisions.

Not only are these biases discriminatory, but tragically, they prolong the Arab-Israeli conflict and make the goal of a viable and lasting, negotiated two-state peace between Israel and the Palestinians harder to reach. As long as the UN cannot be reasonably even-handed, it cannot significantly contribute to Middle East peace.

To her credit, Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has taken up the banner of UN reform, saying that an Abbott government would make its pursuit a priority if elected.

Yet one can expect bipartisanship here too, given the Government's stance at UNESCO, Durban III and elsewhere, and the fact that many on the Labor side of politics are well aware of the need for major changes in the world body to save it from the many problems that threaten to destroy its genuine potential. Those who care most about the UN should be the strongest partisans of reforms that will help it live up to its ideals.

Beyond the issues outlined by the PM, and the urgent need to promote UN reform, Australia's upcoming term in the Security Council should crystallise and promote our national interests, principles and global outlook.

Australia's bipartisan tradition of strong support for a secure Israel, and of realistic and well-informed policies for seeking to promote a genuine, negotiated, two-state peace outcome should continue to be an integral part of the policy Australia presents to the world.

Some of the usual pundits who would like to undermine that bipartisan support saw the election for the Security Council seat as an opportunity to effect the change desired.

Before the election, a motley cadre of former politicians, officials and journalists warned the Government that its Security Council bid would fail unless it jettisoned its principled and realistic support for Israel. Bizarrely, since the vote, some of these same voices have continued their campaign, advising the Government to adopt a more critical stance towards Israel in the Security Council in order to separate itself from the US. Some steps along the way encouraged this mindset - including changes in some UN votes, and the sending of high-level representatives to the recent Non-Aligned Movement summit in Iran.

Yet from the commanding margin of victory, we know that Australia's enduring and realistic support for Israel and for genuine peace, if anything, helped our bid by earning respect and proving our mettle as a principled country that stands by its friends, its promises and its values.
Prime Minister Gillard, who wisely ignored such naysayers ahead of the vote, can and should continue to do so today.

As the Palestinian Authority vows to advance a vote in the General Assembly on upgrading its status from "observer" to "non-member state", now is the time for Australia's UN mission in New York to act upon Prime Minister Gillard's remarks at the General Assembly in September and promote diplomacy towards pressuring the Palestinians to reconsider their unilateral actions and return to direct negotiations with Israel.

As part of these efforts, one would expect Australia's UN mission in New York, now 27 years removed from its last post on the Security Council, to exercise great caution in light of our higher profile and greater responsibilities.

Every statement, every meeting, and every vote now carries that much more weight and is under intense scrutiny, while every misstep is amplified.

The Government, through Foreign Minister Carr, will surely stress that policy discipline among the diplomatic corps, always important, must be more rigorously adhered to than ever.

Two years is a short window of time, especially in the realm of foreign policy, but such is the nature of any temporary seat. The challenge now for Australia is to review, prioritise, and maximise its term in office, with the aim of being able to look back in December 2014, satisfied with a two-year record of principled, constructive and distinguished achievement.

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