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Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Page: 163


Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (21:50): I rise to make my contribution to the Senate about my time as a parliamentary adviser to the 71st General Assembly of the United Nations in New York from September to December last year. At the outset I would like to thank the Australian Senate for providing me with this opportunity to observe the work of the United Nations over such as significant period of time—and time obviously away from this place.

The delegation, consisting of myself and Senator Bernardi, was located at the Australian Mission to the United Nations in the Wells Fargo building on 42nd Street in New York City, about a 15-minute walk from the UN building. Firstly, I would like to thank the Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Ms Gillian Bird, and all of the staff in the Australian mission for their professional advice and support during the 71st General Assembly. I particularly want to thank the second secretary, Julian Simpson, for his support and assistance throughout my visit. Australia, I think, can be very proud of the quality and dedication of our diplomatic staff and their hard work at this most important world institution. I would also like to thank my federal Labor Party caucus colleagues for choosing to me for this unique opportunity to represent Australia at the United Nations.

I also benefitted greatly from meeting many individuals from non-government organisations, think tanks and universities who welcomed me during my time at the United Nations and gave me an opportunity to learn new approaches to a range of issues facing both our nations, and indeed many nations across the globe. I also would like to thank the staff at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC for facilitating meetings on key policy areas of interest and arranging meetings. I enjoyed meeting with congressmen and being at Capitol Hill at such a critical time in the US political cycle.

I would like to give some observations of the United Nations as a global organisation and then discuss my observations and participation. Prior to leaving for this three-month delegation experience at the UN, I had been a member of the Australian parliament's Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. I had participated in a number of inquiries including Australia's advocacy against the death penalty, the empowerment of women and girls in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as previously serving as a member of the Australian parliament's Joint Standing committee on Treaties. Before my time in parliament I had also served as President of the United Nations Association Tasmanian Branch so to be able to put my understanding of the UN and its norms, structures, funds and programs into a real-life observation and participation was very exciting.

During the first week in September, leaders of 193 countries merged in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly. I welcomed the opportunity to participate in several official events arranged by the mission in association with the visit of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister.

I appreciated the opportunity to give a statement on behalf of Australia to the UN's Second Committee on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and importantly marking the Paris Agreement coming into force, underscoring our collective resolve to confront the challenge of climate change. I appreciated further General Assembly statements I gave in Third committee and in Sixth Committee on Women's Empowerment and Transboundary Harm. And unlike the behaviour in the Australian parliament, everyone listened politely. The Australian parliament could learn something about how to behave from the UN General Assembly!

There are clearly limits to what the UN can accomplish. Trying to achieve consensus across 193 countries with their range of national interests is indeed a major hurdle. But the recent adoption of the 2030 Sustainable Agenda shows that it is still possible to achieve multilateral outcomes.

Further, the structural fixture of the UN Security Council, with its five countries with veto powers, set after World War II, makes consensus even more challenging. Progress can be stalled or blocked by any one of those five, which I witnessed numerous times regarding the conflict in Syria. Yet throughout my three months involvement at the UN I became firmly of the view that for Australia to advance our own interests and regional interests, it was important we were part of the decision-making process of setting international norms, standards and mechanisms and then adhering to them.

I certainly learnt of the hard work, skilled negotiation and bridge building of diplomats. The effort to find common ground with one another rather than create conflict was impressive. So too was the good natured and professional approach of diplomats in trying to reach consensus. But of course the UN is not perfect, marked by its inability to deal with the myriad of issues in the Middle East, particularly Syria. Also it is a 70-year- old organisation and in some areas is very siloed. That is where it is important the new Secretary-General, Antonio Gutuerres, takes a lead to take on much needed reforms at the UN.

It was an exciting time to be at the UN with the appointment of a new Secretary-General, something that usually only happens every 10 years. I had the opportunity to witness the informal talks and meetings where candidates for the Secretary-General position spoke to the member states on their vision and their candidature. I was impressed with the transparency and openness of the selection process and the number of candidates including a number of female candidates.

On 13 October 2016, Antonio Guterres was appointed, with the endorsement of the UN Security Council, by the UN General Assembly to be the 9th UN Secretary-General. Mr Guterres' time as the Commissioner of the UNHCR included the largest movement of people seeking asylum since the end of the World War II. This makes him very qualified to deal with the challenges ahead in the movement of people and issues for people seeking refuge. Also when he was Prime Minister of Portugal, Mr Guterres helped lead the campaign for international intervention to stop the violence in East Timor following the vote for Timorese independence.

I had the privilege to meet the outgoing UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, whose 10-year tenure ended in December. He leaves a legacy as the UN Secretary-General that brought in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, led key human rights initiatives and directed the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change and ratified it in record time.

One of the biggest highlights for me was the UN Refugee Summit on 19 September 2016. It was a high-level plenary meeting addressing the large movements of refugees and migrants with an aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach. Importantly it was the first time the General Assembly had called for a summit at the heads of government level on the large movements of refugees and migrants since the Refugee Convention was adopted in 1951. It was indeed a watershed moment in history. Member states, including Australia, reached agreement by consensus on a powerful 'outcome document' known as the New York Declaration outlining the political will of world leaders to save lives, protect rights and share responsibility on a global scale. Importantly, it commits member states to negotiate 'a comprehensive refugee response framework' and, separately, a 'global compact' for safe, orderly and regular migration, for adoption in 2018. The world faces a difficult political and social environment on migration. Current systems are failing, and with only 8 nations currently taking in 86 per cent of the world's refugees, more must be done to encourage and support other nations to accept displaced people. The commitments made are bold, but I look forward to them, hopefully, shaping a more compassionate and effective migration policy across the globe, and indeed to Australia playing its part.

I participated in a number of high-level side events that provided insight into the different strategies countries are adopting towards refugees and migrants. I learnt about Canada's remarkable national project to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees in just four months. They made the refugee situation a whole-of-society approach, not just the responsibility of government. Trade unions, churches, NGOs, universities and businesses all expressed a desire to do something. A strong theme was also the importance of giving dignity and the full potential to live a better life through ensuring refugees can become more self-reliant and able to take their lives into their own hands. To achieve this, there need to be better partnerships between government, humanitarian actors and private enterprise. The UNHCR highlighted that refugees are people with remarkable skills, and, if we provide the enabling environment, positive change can happen. If refugees are allowed to work and move, they can be contributing people in host countries and become key contributors to their economies. But, most importantly, the UN Secretary-General ended the session by highlighting that there should be no politics when it comes to human life. I could not agree more.

The UN Security Council met on numerous occasions at various times of the day and night throughout my three months at the UN. Whilst the main aim of the council was to pass resolutions for a ceasefire in Aleppo, Russia continually used its veto power to block such an outcome, and has been accused of barbarism and committing war crimes. This is one of the worst conflicts seen this decade. It is a complete affront to humanity. The attacks on the civilian population of Aleppo are an appalling humanitarian disaster and a complete breach of international law. France drafted a UN Security Council resolution to impose a ceasefire on Aleppo, which would have meant a new US and Russia truce, the grounding of Syrian air strikes, and a pause in military fighting in Aleppo. That would then have allowed the aid convoys to have, hopefully, made it back into Aleppo. However, on the night of Saturday, 8 October last year, Russia used its veto power to vote down that resolution. It was the fifth time Russia had used its veto against a UN resolution on Syria during the more-than-five-year conflict.

I also attended a number of important briefings in the UN Security Council about the concerning situation in South Sudan. The horrific nature of this tribal war has resulted in a mass displacement of now one million refugees fleeing the country, and 4.8 million people are facing severe food insecurity. The panel report outlined the relentless obstruction and attacks against UN and humanitarian missions, and the grave outcome of the killing of 67 aid workers since the outbreak of conflict in December 2013. The most confronting was the report of conflict-related sexual violence and the ongoing killings of civilians, women, children and the elderly. The permanent ceasefire has not been respected by the parties since July, and there was mention of the need for the Security Council to impose an arms embargo in order to prevent further destabilisation of the security situation and the major human rights violations.

My time at the UN covered a diverse range of issues, perhaps more than I can go through this evening, but they did include human rights, gender equality and women's reproductive rights, the rights of children, nuclear disarmament, and indigenous and refugee issues. I was pleased to sit in on a statement delivered in the third committee by the very impressive Australian Youth Representative to the UN, Chris Eigeland, who gave an impressive and strong message about the importance of inclusion of all people and the need to mobilise young people around the world in order to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

I met with Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott-Despoja, to discuss the challenges of gender equality, particularly in the Asia-Pacific. I also met with Princess Mary of Denmark about women's health initiatives, following her contribution made at the UN on the access of women and girls to reproductive health as part of the Safe Birth Even Here campaign. I also met with a number of women from neighbouring Pacific Island nations, including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and New Zealand, to discuss some of the challenges we and our neighbours face together.

The Permanent Missions of Brazil and Guatemala to the United Nations, along with ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, invited me to speak at a UN side event on the negotiations for a legally binding instrument to ban nuclear weapons, as put forward by the open-ended working group. This was a critical issue facing the UN in October, resulting in the UN General Assembly adopting a landmark resolution to convene a conference in 2017. Australia, unfortunately and surprisingly, voted against the resolution, even though the resolution is regarded as an end to two decades of paralysis in multilateral nuclear disarmament efforts.

I also participated in the highest level meeting to ever take place in the UN to protect LGBTI people. The LGBT Core Group is a cross-regional group, including 19 countries as well as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union and Human Rights Watch, and included US Vice-President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Ms Erna Solberg of Norway and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

There are still 70 countries where it is a crime for LGBTI people to live openly. They are being killed just for being who they are. Vice-President Biden spoke passionately on the human rights of LGBTI people across the globe and reflected on the recent Orlando nightclub shooting, which was the first time the UN Security Council, in condemning the violence, used language recognising violence targeting the LGBTI community.

I also had a range of meetings at the UN Secretariat building, including briefings from the UN Office of Disarmament and the UN Department of Safety and Security's Under-Secretary-General Peter Drennan, a former Australian official. I also met with key officials in UNICEF to discuss children's rights and the incredible work and operations of UNICEF. Equally, I met with key officials of UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, on their work to deliver stronger health systems for women's and girls' access to reproductive health, safe childbirth ad family planning.

Whilst I was at the mission, Australia's campaign and bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council was underway—the first time we have sought a seat on the Human Rights Council. My view is that, whilst I am not against our bid, I do see it as an opportunity for Australia to improve our record on human rights for Australia's First Peoples and for the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. There is a lot more work to do this year for Australia to be confident of our election to the council, but I do wish the Australian mission all the best in its bid for that seat.

Of course, I was also in New York at a pivotal time in the US election cycle. A lot of people I met with were concerned that the work, deliberations and resolutions passed at the UN would be under threat with a change of administration. I am really not sure what direction a Trump administration will take towards the United Nations, but I do hope that President Trump recognises the importance of the United Nations in terms of an international rules based order. Despite the challenges the UN faces, the fact that all the nations of the world are sitting down and talking to each other, rather than killing each other, to try to resolve the world's most pressing issues is indeed a critical step for humanity.

It was indeed a privilege to work at the United Nations. I look forward to utilising this special opportunity to promote understanding of the benefits of an international rules based institution which I believe is so fundamental to achieving peace and security, human rights and equality for all people.