The Arms Trade Treaty – a test run for Australia on the UN Security Council

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 01 Mar 2011

It is no secret that Australia is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council, the body responsible for maintaining global peace and security. This would place Australia in the inner sanctum of the most powerful body of the UN, albeit without the veto rights of the five permanent members.

Whatever your perspectives about Australia’s motivations for making this bid, events unfolding this week in Libya and at the UN give us reason to seriously consider the potential influence Australia could have on the international peace and security agenda.

Over the past week we have learnt that the Libyan army is using weapons purchased from European Governments to fire indiscriminately into crowds of pro-democracy protesters. At the same time, some of these governments are meeting in the chambers of the UN Security Council to discuss measures to respond to the rapidly escalating crisis.

The irony of this state of events is that that the five permanent members of the Security Council are also responsible for around 70 per cent of total global arms exports. Given lax international controls on the arms trade, many of these arms eventually end up in the hands of despots, mercenaries, rebel groups, terrorists and crime syndicates – responsible for grave human rights abuses against vulnerable people and deepening poverty around the world.

In effect this can result in UN Security Council members fighting fires on one hand, and counter-intuitively fuelling them on the other.

Unlike most UN Security Council members, Australia has a greater reputation for helping developing countries to disarm rather than arm themselves (with some notable exceptions such as Papua New Guinea, where some tribal fighters are still using Australian made guns from the 1970s).

Australia also has a long, proud and bipartisan history of supporting UN peace operations. In recent years we have developed a reputation for been at the forefront of efforts to improve the protection of civilians through UN and African Union peacekeeping operations.

Of course Australia’s peace and security report card isn’t all good news. Australian foreign policy, particularly in Afghanistan, remains closely aligned to the deeply destructive ‘war on terror’ rhetoric. Australia’s defence policy and military expansion have also been accused in recent years of contributing to an arms race in the Asia-Pacific.

Despite these concerns, Australia clearly has a reputational advantage in the peace and security arena compared to current UN Security Council members. The question is, would Australia use this reputational power to the fullest extent possible?

To answer this question, Australians might want to start paying closer attention to the role we are playing in the recently commenced Arms Trade Treaty negotiations.

Preventing arms from fuelling Libyan-style human rights abuses is precisely the purpose of the first global, legally binding Arms Trade Treaty. It will place special obligations on states to prevent their arms exports from ending up in the wrong hands.

Governments from around the world and civil society groups are meeting at the UN in New York this week to begin the second round of preparatory negotiations on the Treaty – and Australia is centre stage.

As a co-author of the UN resolutions that have led to these negotiations, Australia has demonstrated a genuine commitment to advancing the Treaty. This commitment has remained steadfast through the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments. Equally, Australia is one of the few states that has allowed civil society representatives to join its delegation – including Oxfam.

But will Australia use its reputational power to push hard for a robust and effective Treaty without loopholes when it comes to crunch time? In the face of rigid negotiating positions from powerful arms exporting allies, this will require some serious courage.

Vocal advocacy is not Australia’s traditional approach in international affairs, opting instead for a consensus building approach built on incentives and concessions. This conciliatory approach has its merits, but in the face of such obvious power imbalances and vested interests the world desperately needs a larger pool of states willing to take an unequivocal stand on human rights and human security.

With its comparative reputational advantage Australia could be a powerful advocate – in Arms Trade Treaty negotiations and ultimately on the UN Security Council. The Australian Government should seize this opportunity to demonstrate what it is capable of to the world and to the Australian public.

A win for human rights and security at the Arms Trade Treaty negotiating table may just be the proof the world needs to know Australia is ready to make a real difference on the UN Security Council.

Andrew Hewett
Executive Director
Oxfam Australia

This opinion editorial by was first published in the Canberra Times on 1 March 2011