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Embracing multilateralism

A commitment

Brendan Lim

In an interconnected global community, Australia cannot afford to be cutting her connections. Can we be selective in when and how we choose to embrace multilateralism? I suggest not. With threats to peace and security at the forefront of foreign policy, Australia must be prepared to pursue co-operative solutions to common problems. Interconnectedness demands that much.

Threats to our peace and security are many and diverse. They include not only the well-acknowledged spread of terrorist groups and proliferation of weapons in our region but also the scourge of poverty, oppression, human rights abuses and environmental degradation taking place on our doorstep. The former threaten our immediate safety. The latter must necessarily be eradicated if there is to be any hope of sustainable security. I would like to suggest that our commitment to a better world is dependent on our engagement with the United Nations and our dedication to an international rule of law. I argue the case for a multilateral approach to peace and security especially in the contexts of terrorism and postwar Iraq.

Turning our back

Dr Herbert Evatt, whose Foundation gives us this evening's seminar, was a great Australian who was instrumental in the very creation of the United Nations in 1945. There is a sad irony that Australia is now a nation perceived by many to have turned its back on the international system, circumventing Security Council opposition to war in Iraq in favour of unilateral military action and defying the criticisms of the committees on human rights, to advocate some sort of "selective exemption" from international scrutiny. What values do we sacrifice when we go down this road? We sacrifice the belief that the use of force, beyond that used in self-defence, must have the support of the Security Council. Consequently, we suggest that lawlessness rather than diplomacy is a legitimate option for a state which cannot garner UN support.

We sacrifice the belief that no state, democratic or undemocratic, is above the international rule of law. This gives undue support to less-than-model nations who would ignore their obligations and impose regimes of oppression and terror. Fundamentally, we sacrifice the important belief that nations can work co-operatively to achieve common goals. Robbing the UN of legitimacy and lending credence to the arguments of defiant states in this manner undermines security. Such a policy contributes to breaches of the peace and contributes to continued oppression of people in our region, undermining the very structures which can support the precarious foundations of peace.

Embracing multilateralism

So instead, Australian foreign policy should realise Dr. Evatt's dream and be based on our relationship with the United Nations. The threat of terrorism in our region is well-recognised. But what is the best way for Australia to improve security? Surely, confrontational policies with only short-term political gain in mind do nothing to promote long-term stability and peace in the region. Surely, we should be focussing on addressing the underlying factors which create an environment conducive to the spread of terrorism. Achieving the Millennium Development Goals should be our number one priority. And this requires an embrace of multilateralism. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his address to the General Assembly last year: "a world where many millions of people endure brutal oppression and extreme misery will never be fully secure, even for its most privileged inhabitants."

Australian policy and resources should be directed toward the multilateral institutions which can promote development in our region. We must renew our commitment to realising the broad aims of democracy, human rights, strengthened economies and protected environments at home and in our region. Only these will sustain security. Confronting head-on the lack of access to employment and educational opportunities in South-East Asia will be a necessary step in limiting the ability of terrorist organisations to recruit new members.

More directly, Australian policy and resources should be directed toward the multilateral institutions which are best placed to facilitate the global sharing of intelligence on terrorist financing and terrorist activities. In this light, it is clear that Australian resources are not best directed toward an expensive, untested missile defence system which cannot even guarantee the protection of our own borders. Moving beyond terrorism to broader concerns of peace and security, the rebuilding of post-war Iraq is an enormous responsibility. Here, again, it is clear that long-term stability will come about through a UN-negotiated administration.

The UN is solely concerned with the impact on the Iraqi people of the rebuilding process and outcomes. Leaders in Iraq, last week, stated their support for any plans endorsed by the United Nations. If groups are disenfranchised from the process because of external interests, decisions will face opposition and civil unrest will be the only outcome. In the interests of long-term peace and stability, Australia should again commit first and foremost to the comprehensive and inclusive ambitions of the UN in Iraq.

This requires full and constructive engagement with multilateralism. This requires leadership by example. Australia's recent appointment to the presidency of the UN Commission on Human Rights presents the government with a unique opportunity to embrace multilateralism and provide real leadership in human rights protections. We could start by extending an open invitation to UN personnel to inspect our detention centres; this would send a strong message to our neighbours that human rights transparency is a priority of the international community. We could start by ceasing the mandatory detention of women and children with the long-term view of ending mandatory detention full stop. This would send a strong message to our neighbours that human rights action is a priority of the international community.


It is in the best interests of the Australian people that to maintain peace and security at home, in the region and across the globe we embrace multilateralism and strengthen our commitment to the United Nations and an international rule of law. To conclude, I would like to leave you with the suggestion that young people can and should be included in the policy-forming process. Drugs, youth suicide and, if we are lucky, education and employment are those themes traditionally labelled as "youth issues". Experience in UNYA tells me that there is an interested and informed youth population who are concerned about world events, who worry about the impact of international affairs on their lives and on the lives of their global peers and, above all, who have the ability and the desire to make valuable contributions to foreign policy debate. I would like to thank the Evatt Foundation and the Australian Labor Party for giving the United Nations Youth Association the opportunity to put the case for multilateralism in an interconnected world.


Brendan Lim is on the national executive of the United Nations Youth Association - a not-for-profit, community-based organisation committed to educating and empowering young Australians. The association maintains a comprehensive body of policy and selects the youth representative on the Australian delegation to the UN General Assembly. Brendan is a law student at the University of Adelaide. Last year, he was a finalist in the South Australian government youth awards showcase. He has also represented Australia at an international UN youth summit in The Hague. This is the text of an address to the Evatt Foundation's sunset seminar, convened as part of the Fringe Conference associated with the ALP National Conference on Thursday 29 January 2004 at Sydney's Quality Hotel.


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