How can Australia use its seat on the UN Security Council to advance Human Rights?

By Holly Kendall | 27 Nov 12

By Holly Kendall.

Australia has just spent at least 24 million dollars to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council.  Right Now investigates how Australia can use its seat to advance human rights in Australia.

The Security Council was formed in 1945 under the United Nations Charter with the “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security”.

The Security Council can identify and investigate disputes that endanger international peace and security and identify measures needed to maintain or restore international peace and security. The measures can include economic sanctions, ceasing diplomatic relations or severing international services including rail, air, post, radio or other means of communication. Where necessary, the Security Council can use force to maintain or restore international peace and security as was done in Libya and Afghanistan. Member states are obliged to carry out the decisions of the Security Council.

The Security Council also has the ancillary powers to recommend the admission of a new member to the United Nations and refer matters to the International Criminal Court (ICC) that relate to countries that are not members of the court.

The Security Council has five permanent members that can veto a decision. They are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. The 10 non-permanent members are selected by vote on a rotating basis for two year terms. Though power resides predominantly with the permanent members of the Security Council as a result of their veto power, the non-permanent members retain the ability to influence decision-making. A resolution of the Security Councils requires that nine of the 15 members agree. All members of the Security Council can request a meeting of the Security Council be called. As a result, all members have a chance to shape the agenda of the Security Council.

Australia has sought a seat on the Security Council to increase our influence in international affairs. Prime Minister Gillard has cited Australia’s extensive involvement in UN peacekeeping missions and the importance of having a voice when a decision is made to intervene militarily or otherwise.

Prime Minister Gillard has stated that Australia will use the seat to advocate for action to protect Syrian civilians, continued engagement in East Timor, counter terrorism and non-proliferation, and UN engagement with Afghanistan.

It is likely that Australia’s role on the Security Council will also bring much greater scrutiny of Australia’s human rights record. It will be very difficult for Australia to pass judgment on the human rights records of other countries in the Security Council without drawing attention to our treatment of asylum seekers and inequity of development outcomes for the indigenous population, for example. In this respect the seat on the Security Council may provide an extra incentive to ensure human rights are upheld and promoted domestically.

There are three key ways that Australia can use the seat on the Security Council to advance human rights: procedure, focusing on human rights when the Security Council is considering intervening in a dispute, and speaking up about human rights abuses in the Asia Pacific region.

Philip Lynch of the Human Rights Law Centre has suggested that Australia request regular briefings from international human rights experts, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the inclusion of human rights analysis and impacts in all reports prepared for the Security Council. These suggestions have the potential to turn the Security Council’s collective minds to human rights issues in every decision that they make.

Amnesty International is calling on Australia to use its seat to advocate for a consistent approach of referral of matters to the International Criminal Court. The purpose of the ICC is to try crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression. To date the Security Council has only made two referrals to the ICC. These related to potential war crimes in Libya and Darfur. Since the formation of the ICC there have been many more accusations of war crimes by non-member states that have not been referred to the Court. In particular, Australia has called for the referral of the conflict in Syria. The ICC has the potential to be an important implement of justice. The current referral system by the Security Council is haphazard. The introduction of criteria of referral would increase consistency and the capacity of the ICC to carry out its mandate.

When the Security Council determines that measures are needed to maintain or restore international peace and security it will have a significant impact on the people living in that country or countries. For example, current economic sanctions against Iran are reported to be preventing people from accessing the medicines they need. Obviously any decision to intervene with force puts civilian lives at risk and results in mass displacement of populations, as has occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq. Amnesty International has called on Australia to ensure that actions taken by the Security Council include provisions for the safeguarding of human rights. Given the impact of economic sanctions and the use of force can have a significant impact on the human rights of a population, this is essential.

Part of Australia’s campaign for the Security Council emphasised that Australia has the potential to bring a voice from the Asia Pacific region to the table. Australia now has an obligation to fulfill this duty. The international community has often neglected the Pacific region because of its isolation, it composition of developing nations and because it is not considered to consist of important players in any super powers sphere of influence. Australia should be using the seat on the Security Council to highlight human rights abuses in the Asia Pacific, as part of representing the region.

The Australia Government should also be calling for actions on human rights that would assist development in the Asia Pacific region. Philip Lynch has identified that Australia could be an effective advocate for the development and empowerment of women and girls and combating discrimination on the grounds of sex and gender identity. In particular, Australia could seek to create a working group on women and girls similar to the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, which has played an important role in reducing the number of child soldiers by conducting field investigations, monitoring, reporting and formulating action plans in countries that have had historically significant numbers of child soldiers.

Overall, the Australian seat on the UN Security Council is a significant opportunity to shape global debate and action on security and human rights. Australia should use the seat to advance human rights. Australia needs to seize this rare opportunity.