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Australia and the United Nations

Remarks by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC on the launch of  James Cotton and David Lee eds., Australia and the United Nations (DFAT/Longueville Books, 2013), Parliament House,  Canberra, 7 February 2013

In all my years of public life there is no single institution that I found more exhilarating at its best –  and more debilitatingly frustrating at its worst –  than the United Nations.

My efforts, in particular, to advance the cause of UN reform, which are very fully and painfully described in this splendidly comprehensive book we are launching today, were about as Quixotic and unproductive as anything I have ever tried to do. I’m talking about:

  • reform of Secretariat structures to reduce duplication, waste and irrelevance;
  • reform of personnel practices to ensure that the best people were in the right jobs, and above all
  • reform of the structure of the pinnacle of the whole system, the Security Council, to ensure that it began to reflect the world of the 21st century and not that of the middle of the last

When I turn the pages now of Cooperating for Peace, the book which I wrote on all this 20 years ago (with a lot of strong research support, I should say, from the Department –full, then as now, of terrific professionals like Peter Varghese and David Lee), it’s a rather disconcerting experience to realise that nearly every complaint and prescription in it is just as unhappily pertinent now as it was then!

But there are, equally, over the years many times – again very meticulously and extremely readably described in the book – when Australia has been able to work with and through the UN system to achieve some marvellous things.  And we’ve done so right from the beginning. 

Whatever Dr Evatt’s other failings may have been, and they were legion, his contribution to the founding of the United Nations is the stuff of which legends are made, and rightly so – especially in his fight for the rights of the smaller powers against the great powers, and in his faith in the UN as an agent for social and economic reform and as a protector of human rights. He showed that faith in his support in the Security Council and elsewhere for the Indonesian nationalist cause against the Dutch, which has remained an important element in sustaining our basic relationship with Indonesia through many ups and downs since.

Something else the book reminds us of is that Australia’s willingness to work constructively through the UN trusteeship system to bring smooth and early self-rule and independence to Papua New Guinea – and this was very much the work of conservative governments – made an important contribution to the decolonization process which swept the globe from the 60s on.

For me, there were at least three occasions when my own experience with the UN was one of total exhilaration, and again each of them are very evocatively described in this book.

The first was the success of our peace plan for Cambodia, which was, in a nutshell, premised on getting the UN to do something it had never previously done of this kind, or on remotely this scale, viz assume responsibility for a country’s whole administration during its transition from war to peace. Our idea was that such a commitment by the UN would give China a face-saving reason for stepping back from its long-standing support for the genocidal Khmer Rouge, which was in turn the indispensable ingredient for a sustainable peace. And so it all worked out. I have never been more moved by anything in my life than the sight those Cambodian men, women and children lined up at the polling stations in their scores of thousands in May 1993, knowing the risk of Khmer Rouge bomb attack, but thrilled at the prospect of peace at last, and the chance to have some say at last in how they lived their lives.

The second real sense of achievement was successfully steering to conclusion a year earlier, through the labyrinthine machinations of the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the Chemical Weapons Convention, still the most robust arms control treaty related to weapons of mass destruction ever negotiated – an achievement rendered that much more piquant by knowing that the Conference has not successfully negotiated anything since then, for the last 20 years, even its own work program.  Australia has in fact made a number of notable contributions to the disarmament and non-proliferation cause, including taking the bold step in 1996 – and this was again by a conservative government –of bringing to  a vote on the floor of the General Assembly, against robust opposition from a number of countries important to us,  the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The third time of exhilaration was when the General Assembly, sitting at head of state and government level as the World Summit 2005 on the 6oth anniversary of the UN, unanimously endorsed the concept of states’ responsibility to protect populations at risk of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes – a concept which I had been centrally involved in developing in an international commission I co-chaired a few years earlier, and have been promoting ever since in the hope that, once and for all,  as an international community, we can eradicate the shame of the Holocaust, of Rwanda, of Srbrenica, and of Darfur. That exhilaration  was reinforced when this was invoked as the rationale for the intervention in Libya in 2011, which unquestionably saved scores of thousands of lives that would otherwise have been lost, as so many millions had been lost in the past.

The trouble is that for every high in the world of the UN there seems to be an accompanying low, and that happened with ‘R2P’ not long after the Libyan decision with the Security Council’s total paralysis over the even worse atrocity crime situation in Syria, which has continued to this day.  I believe that there is a way of regenerating consensus among the major players in the Security Council as to the – very limited – circumstances when it is right to militarily intervene in a sovereign country to protect its citizens, and I hope very much that during our long-awaited and thoroughly earned new 2-year term on the Council we can take a serious initiative that will help build that consensus.

That’s not the only initiative we could or should take with such opportunities as we have (and non-permanent members don’t get all that many) over the next two years:  among the other issues to which we can contribute real credibility and experience (and again with a strong track record from governments on both sides of politics) is, for example, the development of more effective post-conflict peacebuilding strategies. But where I think we really can make a difference, on an issue that goes to the heart of our common humanity, is in making sure ‘R2P’ does not just slide back into empty rhetoric – so that the world never again has to look back on yet another genocidal catastrophe saying, yet again, with a mixture of anger and incomprehension and shame, how could that have happened again.

There’s just one more big point I want to make in winding up, and give you some illustrations to back it up.

Most people, I’m afraid, haven’t the faintest idea (although they would be infinitely better informed if they read this book) just  how many different roles are played by the UN   –  by the multiple departments, programs, organs, and agencies within the UN system, across the whole spectrum of issues and areas from peace and security between and within states to human rights and human security more generally: health, education, poverty alleviation, disaster relief, refugee protection, people and drug trafficking, heritage protection, climate and the environment and many others as well. And nor do most people begin to appreciate just how many of these agencies have performed outstandingly well for many decades – and how really very little, comparatively, it all costs.

The core functions of the UN – leaving aside the peacekeeping missions but counting everything that goes on in the big headquarters in New York; the big UN offices in Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi; and the five regional commissions spread around the world –  involve the employment of around 40,000 people at a cost of some $2.5 billion a year. That sounds a lot, but maybe not quite so much when you reflect that our own Commonwealth Department of Human Services spends $5.4b on 37,000 staff – not many fewer numbers, than the UN Secretariat, but for $3 billion more!

If you then add to these UN core functions its related programs and organs (like the UN Development Program  and  the office of the  UN High Commissioner for Refugees), and also its peacekeeping activities (which involve over 110,000 international military, police, and civilian peacekeepers) the total UN system cost is still little just around $25 billion a year. Which again sounds a big number, and it is, but not so much when you realise that it’s less than a quarter of what the US military has been spending  each year on just one current conflict, in Afghanistan [$105 billion in FY11/12]. And even more so when you remember that it’s considerably less than the amount [$33.2 billion] paid out in Wall Street bonuses in 2007, the year before the global financial and economic meltdown.

The whole family of UN Secretariat and related entities, together with current peacekeepers, adds up to around 170,000 people worldwide –  not a small number, but maybe one that is better put in context when you know that it’s less than half of the staff [400,000] employed by McDonalds worldwide.

The bottom line is that Australia, for all the grumbling that some governments and some commentators continue to do, and for all the different levels of enthusiasm that have waxed and waned over the years, as this book superbly records, has always supported the United Nations. And I believe we always will, because policymakers do know how much good how many of its component parts are constantly doing, and do know that when it comes to its core peace and security functions, if it ever ceased to exist we would have to reinvent it.

We just need to remember, as the most famous and respected, of all its Secretaries-General, Dag Hammarskjold, put it, in those immortal words of his: “The UN was created not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell”.