‘Australia: We do what we say’. During the Labor campaign for election to a two-year term of office as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, this slogan featured prominently on every page of the candidature brochure. This idea of a reliable, no-nonsense, straight-forward, ‘true-blue Aussie’ national character was a cornerstone of the Australian campaign, which proved successful in the first round elections in October 2012. Senator Bob Carr, Minister for Foreign Affairs, described the victory as ‘a big, juicy, decisive win’ and ‘the world saying “we see Australia as a good country, a fine global citizen”’.
Sources now suggest that the government is now back-tracking on its stated commitment to making the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) thematic agenda a ‘key priority’ for the Security Council Presidency in September. They speculate that perhaps Prime Minister Rudd, despite his appetite for the world stage, is not as committed to this agenda as his predecessor. It is simply not acceptable to shift the focus at the last minute away from ‘Women’s Leadership in Peacebuilding’ as announced to the world in a UN Women press release. A ‘side event’ on 6 September 2013, which would require no member state attendance or support, is in no way equivalent to pushing forward the WPS agenda within the Council itself.
As a non-permanent member, Australia enjoys a two-year term of office and two periods of holding the Council Presidency, which rotates alphabetically through the 15 member states of the Council month by month. The first Australian Presidency will be in September. During the Presidency, member states can engage the rest of the Council members in open debate, co-ordinate thematic discussions and provide opportunity to move forward issues that are central to their own foreign policy interests and priorities.
One of the things that various Australian government officials said that the country would do at the Council would be to champion the ‘Women, Peace and Security‘ agenda. This agenda is one of the thematic areas of work at the UN SC. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, adopted in October 2000, is often identified as the cornerstone of the WPS agenda at the United Nations. Resolution 1325 was the culmination of decades of activism and advocacy work by civil society organisations aimed at encouraging the United Nations to recognise the gendered impacts of armed conflict and the active roles played by both women as well as men in the pursuit of lasting and sustainable peace.
Since taking up the position in January 2013, Australia’s representatives at the UN and elsewhere have reiterated the government’s commitment to the WPS agenda. Just recently, in a reference paper titled ‘Australia’s Foreign Policy Directions’, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator the Hon. Bob Carr stated that:
A key priority for Australia on the Council — particularly during our Presidency in September — will be to highlight the important leadership role women can play in ensuring long-lasting peace in fragile post-conflict societies.
Initial consultations with civil society organisations in the first half of this year confirmed that Australia was planning high-level interventions at the Security Council engaging the question of women’s leadership in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction. During these consultations, stakeholders were led to believe that such interventions would include at least an open debate, hopefully at the Ministerial level, and that the debate would inform a Presidential Statement, if not act as the foundation for a new Security Council resolution.
The Labor government is currently facing significant pressure, both domestically and internationally, regarding its stated policy toward asylum seekers that emanate largely from conflict countries and include sizeable numbers of women and children fleeing political persecution including gender-based violence. With an election imminent, is the Women, Peace and Security agenda going to be another arena in which the government fails to deliver on a promise it has made?
Laura J. Shepherd (UNSW) and Jacqui True (Monash)