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Australia's performance on the UN Security Council
Political editor Catherine McGrath reports on Australia's performance on the Security Council seven months into its term.

Securing a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council is a bit like winning the diplomatic version of the chance to host the Olympic Games.

Australia won the contest and is now heavily involved in discussions on the world's most serious security issues, including Syria and Afghanistan.

Political editor Catherine McGrath reports.
CATHERINE MCGRATH, REPORTER: For the first time in nearly 30 years, Australia is sitting on the UN Security Council.

PROFESSOR RAMESH THAKUR, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: We are amongst the heavy lifters outside the five permanent members along with Pakistan and Korea. These are the three countries that are doing most of the serious work.

DR RUSSELL TROOD, UNITED NATIONS ASSOCIATION OF Australia: It's early on in our term but I certainly think it's been worth while.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Australia's chairing three sanctions committees on Iran, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

On Afghanistan Australia has what's known as penholder responsibility in the Security Council with the role of coordinating the UN mandate.

PROFESSOR RAMESH THAKUR: We will have the drafting responsibility. We won't make the key decisions. We'll be part of that because we are involved in there militarily but nonetheless Australia will have the delicate task of writing up the complicated agreements that the other key major players have negotiated between them.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Australia's ambassador to the UN Security Council is Gary Quinlan.

From September 1 for a month Australia has its first chance to chair the current UN Security Council, a role with the power to shape agendas and push Australian issues.

And the final week of September is leader's week at the UN when presidents and prime ministers speak. It is peak season, and it's hard to imagine that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wouldn't want to be there. After all, it was his vision that has seen Australia take up this role.

TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN OPPOSITION LEADER: Tony Abbott, Michael, good to see you.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: But September could see Australia in the midst of an election campaign, and before Kevin Rudd took over September 14 had been named by then prime minister Julia Gillard as the poll date. Now the election could be called any time, and a date in early September is currently tipped.

DR RUSSELL TROOD: This is a rotating presidency which we have for the month of September. So it's important that we have an opportunity to do the best we can while we hold that presidency. And that essentially means being able to draw on to the Security Council agenda issues which are of particular interest to Australia and on which we think there can be some movement in the international community. So if the federal election is going to interfere with our capacity to do that then it's deeply regrettable.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Russell Trood is a former Liberal Party senator and president of the UN Association of Australia. During the UN bid he was appointed by Kevin Rudd as an envoy to lobby internationally.

DR RUSSELL TROOD: If the election is going to be held in the middle of the month or towards the end of it, that there be some sort of common bipartisan view as to the agenda items. So that the Government and the Opposition should at least be talking to each other so that we can actually agree on the agenda items should there be a change of government.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: The Prime Minister's office says a decision on attendance will be made closer to the event.

Over recent years great effort went into the campaign for the seat and there were political divisions over the decision to run.

KEVIN RUDD, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER (2008): Australia will be seeking election to the UN Security Council for 2013-2014.

BOB CARR, AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (2012): It is always good to see Australia win, and this was a big, juicy, decisive win.

TONY ABBOTT (2012): It's just a two-year term, what we won today, at the cost of many, many tens of millions of dollars and some dislocation of our ordinary diplomatic efforts.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: But now Australia is on the Security Council with the five permanent members - China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States - along with the 10 non-permanent members.

The permanent members are often divided, and currently are over the issue of Syria. Russia and China have used the veto power three times to block resolutions on Syria. And the five are divided even over the parameters of a proposed Syrian peace conference.

And divisions were clear in media statements after a meeting in the last week between the Syrian opposition and the Security Council.

SIR MARK LYALL GRANT, UK AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: l think members of the Security Council will have been encouraged by the commitment shown by the opposition. It remains to be seen whether the regime is equally committed.

VITALY CHURKIN, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: One should not be carried away too much because clearly there are still some obstacles to be overcome.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: Big arguments on big issues. but one expert believes Australia can and is having an impact.

Professor Ramesh Thakur was a former assistant secretary-general at the UN and has advised the Australian and New Zealand governments on arms control, disarmament and international security issues.

Australia called a special meeting on Syria, giving interested countries and NGOs the chance to talk informally with members of the Security Council. It's known as an Arria Formula meeting.

PROFESSOR RAMESH THAKUR: Ambassador Quinlan did this with respect to the topic of this year on security issues and that's Syria ,where he asked a couple of members of the Human Rights Council investigation team to come and present their point of view. So the fact that Australia convened this and it was attended and they got a briefing from these people speaks very well again to the authentic voice that Australia brings to the most pressing issues.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: While Australia is stepping up its international diplomatic engagement through its role on the UN Security Council, Australia's image as a global nation and as part of the UN is also coloured by the asylum seeker issue.

PROFESSOR PENELOPE MATTHEW, LAW, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: We are not in the good books of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, so one of the key humanitarian organisations. They've been very critical of the various iterations of the Pacific solution and very critical of this latest move, the regional resettlement arrangement with Papua New Guinea. So it's clear that our reputation has taken something of a hit on that score.

CATHERINE MCGRATH: It's a criticism Australian politicians have been prepared to live with.
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