Now down to its final week as president of the United Nations Security Council, Australia has a real chance to make its mark on the powerful body.
There’s no questioning the importance of Australia using this role to respond to a range of conflicts, including pushing for a political solution to the Syria crisis.
The US-Russia agreement on a plan to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons shows this is a critical opportunity for Australia to ramp up its diplomatic efforts for a peaceful end to the bloodshed.
But membership of the Security Council is not only about responding to the crises of the day. It’s also about playing the long game, and acting to prevent a repeat of the violence in Syria from happening in other parts of the world.
That’s why Australia’s decision to use its presidency to push for the first Security Council resolution on small arms and light weapons is so important – and why it is critical the Coalition government continues to strive to achieve this end. Small arms – such as handguns, assault rifles and ammunition – have a devastating impact on people.
They are the main weapons used in organised crime, civil wars and gang battles. An estimated 1500 people die every day as a result of armed violence, with 60 per cent of all human rights violations involving the use of small arms.
For decades, Coalition and Labor governments have advanced Australia’s leadership role in international disarmament – from facilitating the adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to spearheading the creation of the Australia Group on chemical and biological weapons.
The Howard government’s gun control reforms in the late 1990s bolstered Australia’s reputation as a world leader on arms regulation.
In 2006, under the Coalition government and with the leadership of then foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer, Australia was one of seven nations to initiate work towards a global Arms Trade Treaty.
The Rudd and Gillard Labor governments continued the push, and Australia was a key player in achieving almost unanimous agreement on the treaty this year – the only governments willing to vote against it were North Korea, Iran and Syria.
The credibility and experience Australia has gained in successfully negotiating such a landmark treaty could greatly benefit its efforts in the Security Council. The world’s top arms exporters includes all five of the council’s permanent members.
A Security Council resolution establishing a strong role for the council in preventing the accumulation and use of small arms and light weapons would build on the success of the Arms Trade Treaty and potentially herald a new era of international co-operation on arms control. Some commentators have suggested this achievement would be ”modest”, and a distraction from the action required on Syria, but nothing could be further from the truth. The issues of small arms and the Syrian war are far from separate.
The 2½-year long Syrian conflict has been fuelled by large quantities of weapons and small arms to the Assad government and the rebels, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, AK-47s, and a steady flow of ammunition.
The Syrian conflict shows how little clarity there is on what measures the Security Council should use to curb the global spread of small arms. One of the only tools available is an arms embargo – but imposing one has proved impossible in Syria because of lack of agreement by council members.
An ambitious push from Australia to negotiate a Security Council resolution on small arms could change this by establishing effective control of arms supplies by governments, regional organisations and the UN. It could set out a broad range of tools, in addition to arms embargoes, for the Security Council to use in tackling small arms issues – from the disarmament work of peace operations to the management of armouries and stockpiles, and encouraging countries to sign and ratify the Arms Trade Treaty.
Achieving such a resolution would be unprecedented, and no mean diplomatic feat – but one Australia is right to pursue, and might just have the credibility, timing and skill to pull off.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Australia was at the helm of the Security Council. The timing of the presidency has been challenging, with the election of a new government one week in. But we can’t let this opportunity pass us by.
By Dr Helen Szoke, Chief Executive, Oxfam Australia
This opinion piece was first published in the Canberra Times on 23 September 2013