Australia steps up to bat as UN grapples with Syria crisis

Australia is set to assume the leadership of the United Nations' most powerful peacekeeping body, the Security Council, at a time when the crisis in Syria is escalating critically and the government is in caretaker mode.

Australia is set to assume the leadership of the United Nations' most powerful peacekeeping body, the Security Council, at a time when the crisis in Syria is escalating critically and the government is in caretaker mode.

It is hard to imagine more difficult timing for Australia's mission at the UN headquarters in New York.

Australia will take over the presidency for one month from Sunday, assuming responsibility for managing the Security Council's program of work, chairing its meetings and driving its agenda. During that time, Australian ambassador to the UN Gary Quinlan will be the spokesman for the council.

And on paper he will become a man of extraordinary influence, leading the executive of a body invested with the power to create coalitions of armed forces and even a standing army in order to maintain peace and international security.

In practice, of course, the role of the presidency, as with the role of the UN itself, is more problematic.

The Security Council is made up of five permanent members - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - and 10 rotating members. After a diplomatic blitz, Australia secured one of the prestigious rotating memberships in a vote earlier this year. The revolving presidency is conferred alphabetically, and Australia will take over the presidency from Argentina before passing it on to Azerbaijan.

Though the first meeting of the council under Australia's presidency is not scheduled until Wednesday, September 4, should an emergency meeting be called for on, say, Syria, ambassador Quinlan could find himself in the chair any time from 12.01 on Sunday morning. Such a circumstance is not out of the question, as the council was created specifically to act as an agile executive that could act faster than the more cumbersome UN General Assembly.

Professor Harry Reicher, an expert on human rights and the UN from the University of Pennsylvania, says Australia has a history of taking the helm of the council during difficult times, and was president during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Back then, a UN ceasefire failed to hold.

According to Reicher, on paper the UN is a perfect body for maintaining peace that in practice has failed critically during humanitarian crises since it was created out of the ashes of the failed League of Nations after World War II.

The UN failed to prevent genocides in Cambodia in the 1970s, of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein in the '80s, in the former Yugoslavia in the '90s and in Darfur this century. Its most signal failure was in Rwanda in 1994, Reicher says. Then Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian officer leading a UN peace-keeping mission, warned of an impending genocide, which he said could be averted if he was provided with further resources. Instead, resources were withdrawn and his force was directed not to intervene.

Over the course of 100 days, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutus.

"The fly in the ointment," Reicher says, "is article 27," referring to the section of the UN charter that grants veto power to any permanent member of the Security Council. "What we have seen time after time after time is that there is always someone who has an interest in not rocking the boat."

In Darfur, that was China, which had trade interests with the Sudanese government. In Syria, both China and Russia have declared their opposition to military action to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons and prevent it using them again.

Despite the shortcomings of the UN, membership and leadership of the Security Council brings with it significant international prestige.

Due to the luck of the draw, Australia's leadership comes at a significant time, not only because of the Syrian crisis but because it falls in September, when world leaders gather to attend UN meetings. This means Australia will be chairing meetings that could be attended by several world leaders.

It also provides Australia with the opportunity to raise themes of concern. Former prime minister Julia Gillard had stated she wanted to see a focus on "women in conflict", as well as the impact on civilians of the civil war in Syria, continued engagement in East Timor, terrorism and non-proliferation during Australia's presidency. It is not clear if the new incumbent will have similar priorities.

Indeed, due to the caretaker mode the government is in it is possible Australia will not be able to exploit its role as much as it could have in other circumstances.

But it is expected that Australia will highlight the impact on peace and security of small arms and light weapons, having led diplomatic efforts to have a UN arms trade treaty adopted. So far, 83 nations have signed the treaty and four have ratified it.

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