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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 120

Senator TIERNEY (8:12 PM) —Tonight I make my first speech about my time as leader of the parliamentary delegation to the 59th session of the United Nations assembly in New York from September to December 2004. I was accompanied by Rod Sawford MP, the ALP member for the seat of Port Adelaide. I wish to express my gratitude to the Australian Senate for providing me with this opportunity to provide advice and to observe the work of this highly complex international organisation over a significant period of time.

The delegation was located at the Australian mission to the United Nations. My special thanks go to His Excellency Mr John Dauth, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations, His Excellency Mr Peter Tesch, Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations, the Australian Consul General, His Excellency Ken Allen, and their staff for their courteous and inclusive approach to the work of our delegation. Australia can be proud of the quality and dedication of its diplomatic staff at this most significant world forum.

I will begin with some reflections on the work of the United Nations as a world body and then discuss my observations of the work of its complex committee process. Prior to leading this delegation to the UN, I had been a member of Commonwealth parliamentary delegations to the South Pacific Forum, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Argentina and France and I led parliamentary delegations to Nigeria, South Africa and the European Union. At the United Nations at this time, it was fascinating to observe so many of the issues and policy challenges that I had observed previously in so many regions of the globe resurface and see them being grappled with in the wider world forum of the United Nations. This was particularly the case with the deep and complex issues affecting the sad continent of Africa.

There are obvious limits to what the United Nations can accomplish. Achieving consensus across 191 nations with diverse national interests borders on the miraculous. Of greater concern are the structural limitations of the Security Council, which were set in concrete by the allies after World War II. Although the UN achieved some success in peacekeeping roles in earlier conflicts—for example, in East Timor—and more recently in backing the French action in Cote d’Ivoire, I could not detect any momentum towards playing a decisive and speedy role in the world’s two major flashpoints: western Sudan and Iraq. Any progress seems to be in the hands of countries like the UK, the USA, France and other members of the coalition of the willing.

Similarly. the UN’s response to humanitarian crises, such as the recent tsunami, has puzzled many. In the public debate about the international reaction since Boxing Day 2004, many questions have been raised about the level and timing of the United Nations’ response to this crisis. Our Prime Minister, John Howard, has been quick to point out why, in the face of such a disaster, bilateral response is more effective. He said:

The UN has an important role but nothing can take the place of nation states because nation states have the assets and they have the capacity, the decision-making processes. I don’t think it is seen as a sidestepping of the United Nations.

The reality is that the international body has no capacity to respond quickly in such a crisis. There are major decision-making and logistical problems in the UN structure. The United Nations’ actions are based on resolutions agreed to by its 191 member states. Action requiring crossing the borders of sovereign nations, particularly in sensitive areas like northern Sumatra, is fraught with difficulty.

The major logistics problems facing the UN operations are multilateral, with sovereign states agreeing to commit such resources. Such agreements take time to put in place. Where the United Nations will find its proper role will be in coordinating the relief effort over time and the long-term rebuilding program, which could take up to 10 years. It is here that the United Nations will come into its own with its diplomatic corps from 191 countries sitting down and resolving the best way to direct the vast resources that have been made available for this crisis to best effect. The need for this to be supplemented by fast-moving bilateral efforts in response to an immediate crisis, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami, does not indicate a failure of the United Nations but a realistic assessment of the limitations of modern multilateral diplomacy. Given the way that the original charter of the UN was crafted, the obstacles to comprehensive reform seem to be insurmountable. I will watch with interest the latest round of proposed reforms advanced by the Secretary-General.

Although fundamental structural reform seems a distant hope, I sensed disquiet about some of the work of the United Nations’ committees and the General Assembly. Committees such as the Economic and Financial Committee—the Second Committee—were simultaneously taking on a wide range of issues, from global climate change to the impact of globalisation. Other committees seemed to be tackling a narrower range of issues. On the agenda of a number of the committees was the topic ‘refreshing the work of the committee’, indicating a possible loss of direction and/or momentum.

The development of resolutions through the committee process was, however, highly impressive, particularly the attempts to find common ground on the exact wording of resolutions between national groups—for example, the group of 77, which makes up the 77 poorest nations in the world, and the European Union—where the negotiations were multinational and the member nations of each group also had to be comfortable with the wording of the resolutions on behalf of their own nation. Although discussions were sometimes tense—for example, the Sixth Committee work on the Law of the Seas, where the Scandinavian countries seemed to have a very different view of the world from everyone else—I was very impressed with the good-natured and highly professional approach of the diplomats seeking a resolution. Having watched so much of the tortuous Sixth Committee work, I was honoured to be asked to put down the Australian position on ‘Oceans and Law of the Seas’ in the plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Across many of the committees there was a strong focus on the plight of the continent of Africa, which is now a net exporter of capital. Apart from trying to put pressure on hot spots—such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and, more recently, Cote d’Ivoire—agreeing on resolutions in a number of the committees that might result in actions that improve the economic and social conditions in Africa seems largely beyond the reach of the current United Nations structures. The plenary processes of the various committees were of great interest and at times were highly instructive. Although most of the time was taken up by nations putting down statements in carefully crafted diplomatic language, occasionally some of these were very memorable—for example, the US position on stem cell research and Zimbabwe’s tortuously crafted position on human rights. Still, everyone listened politely. The Australian parliament could certainly learn something about manners from the United Nations General Assembly.

The most informative part of the committees’ deliberations was the response by the rapporteur, who was an expert in the field and who responded to the debate and answered questions. The most powerful contributions were made by world experts in fields who occasionally addressed the United Nations—that is, various committees, councils and assemblies of the UN. I found many of the workshops and many of the discussions in the UN of interest, particularly the discussions on world trade and developing bilateral and multilateral agreements. This was one of the most impressive things about the United Nations’ process, which we could borrow from in the parliament. People with expertise would come in and give really high-powered, professional presentations to educate the people making the decisions. It is something which we could possibly learn from.

Originally in my work at the United Nations I intended to focus mainly on the work of the Third Committee—Social, Humanitarian and Cultural—but found the work of the Second Committee—Economic and Financial—far more varied and challenging with a wide range of issues under discussion. In the long sweep of human history, the fact that at the United Nations all the nations of the world are sitting down and talking on a daily basis in an attempt to resolve the world’s most pressing problems is in itself a dramatic step forward for humankind.