Statement by the


The Hon. Alexander Downer MP

Minister for Foreign Affairs




to the


55th Session of the

General Assembly of the United Nations






Keeping the United Nations Relevant:

International Peace and Security, and Reform






New York, 18 September 2000







Keeping the United Nations Relevant:

International Peace and Security, and Reform


Statement by the Hon Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs,

to the 55th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations,

New York, 18 September 2000.









Mr President,


I join my colleagues in congratulating you on your election as President of the 55th Session of the General Assembly.


I am also delighted to welcome Tuvalu as the 189th  member of the United Nations. Australia has long-standing and very friendly relations with Tuvalu, and we have worked closely together as members of the South Pacific Forum and the Commonwealth. We are pleased that Tuvalu is now a member of the UN, and look forward to new opportunities to work together for the UN's common goals of peace and development.


Mr President, we meet today just after the largest number of heads of state and government in history gathered for the Millennium Summit. While the Summit touched on the multitude of problems facing the world at the start of a new century, a theme common to many speeches was the need for the United Nations to reform so as to meet the challenges of the era: the challenges of securing peace, of fighting poverty and of empowering and liberating oppressed peoples.


I want to respond to those calls for reform in my remarks to the Assembly today.


Without continuing commitment to reform, the United Nations - like any organisation - cannot expect to keep up with rapid change in the contemporary international environment. In the ab­sence of change and adaptation, the organisation will wither as the nations of the world bypass it in favour of institutions and mechanisms that are more relevant to their needs.


Australians believe the most fundamental task of the organisation - and the very reason for its creation at the end of the Second World War - is the maintenance of international peace and se­curity. In recent years we have seen the United Nations perform at both ends of the spectrum of relevance and effectiveness: at a low point in addressing problems in Rwanda or Kosovo, and at a high point in the resolution of conflict in East Timor.


I am a strong advocate of an active role for the United Nations in the restoration and preservation of international peace and security, especially in situations where there may be imminent danger of humanitarian catastrophe. Appropriate action by the United Nations in these circumstances does more than perhaps anything else to demonstrate the continuing relevance of this organisa­tion to an often sceptical international public.


Continuing commitment to UN reform


Today I want to focus attention on four aspects of reform within the UN system: reform of the Security Council, electoral group reconfiguration, reform of peacekeeping, and reform of the hu­man rights treaty committee system. It is our view that progress in each of these areas must be achieved to enable the UN to deliver results and ensure its relevance and effectiveness.


Security Council Reform


Reform and expansion of the Security Council is driven by two fundamental, interrelated impera­tives: the need to restore the representative nature of the Council by reconfiguring its composi­tion to reflect the size and diversity of contemporary UN membership, and the need to enhance the Council's credibility, authority and legitimacy.


The Australian Government's view has long been that expansion in both categories of member­ship is needed to restore balance and equity to the composition of the Council.


New permanent seats should be assumed by the under-represented developing regions of the world. New permanent seats should also be allocated to the major industrialised powers best able to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security. Equally importantly, other members of the UN should be given the opportunity to contribute directly to the work of the Council through periodic participation as elected members. Expansion of non-permanent membership would enhance the representative nature of the Council, enabling it to act genuinely on behalf of the whole membership.


Australia has long voiced concerns about the veto and continues to argue that there must be limi­tations on its use. Of course, all permanent members of the Council, old and new, must remain accountable for their performance, and to this end any new arrangements for the Council should be reviewed after ten or fifteen years.


Regrettably, discussion on Security Council reform has failed to reach agreement on a package of reforms in the six years since the Open Ended Working Group was established. The impasse is disappointing, and I hope that this session will give new impetus to the reform effort. It is clear from statements at the Millennium Summit, and during this debate, that there is strong support for reform. Renewed commitment and flexibility is needed from all sides.


Electoral group reconfiguration


In the recent debate about UN reform, one key element has largely been missing. I refer to the UN electoral groups.


The electoral groups were established to ensure that there was fair and equitable representation on UN bodies, so that all members who wanted to make a contribution to UN decision-making would have an opportunity to do so. Now that three decades have passed since the formalisation of the present groups, it is timely that we focus on their relevance to present and future geopoliti­cal realities.


The current group system reflects the geopolitics of the 1960s. Since that time, more than sixty nations have joined the UN, leading to significant disparities between the size of groupings and an inadequate level of representation for some sub-regions. In addition, the original rationale for the configuration of the electoral groups has eroded, creating dissonance with the way many member states organise themselves politically and electorally.


The previous realignment of groups in 1963 was a long and difficult process impelled by signifi­cant changes in the UN system after the entry of many newly independent states from Africa and Asia. I recognise that group reconfiguration is no easy matter, and accept that change now will be similarly complex. For that very reason we should delay no longer in commencing a serious debate of these issues.


While there are many possible configurations for revised electoral groupings, and many sensitivi­ties around altering the status quo, the dramatic global changes since the current system came into force have created historic anomalies that cry out to be redressed. Australia looks forward to working with others to achieve that goal.


Treaty committee review and treaty body reform


As part of the government's commitment to a strong and relevant United Nations, Australia re­cently completed a review of the United Nations human rights committee system, with the objec­tive of improving its effectiveness. The review proceeded from our Government's commitment to the international promotion and protection of human rights, and a firm belief that the UN has a central role to play.


Australia has a proud human rights record and we take our international rights and obligations se­riously. We are party to both Human Rights covenants and to the four conventions. Within Aus­tralia, which has a strong civil society, human rights are protected by a range of key civil and po­litical mechanisms, including a strong democratic tradition, our Constitution, an independent ju­diciary, a free press, and wide-ranging anti-discrimination legislation. Internationally, Australia is a strong proponent of the universal application of human rights standards, committed to contin­ued support for international human rights protection.


We are concerned that the committees, established to monitor international compliance with hu­man rights treaties, are losing credibility and effectiveness because of the way they operate. It is important also that the international protection system work efficiently and effectively so that democratic countries such as Australia, which have a proud record of extending generous hu­manitarian assistance, can continue to have the confidence and support of their own domestic constituencies for such humanitarian protection.


Australia's review found that the committees need to adopt a more consistent approach to their role, and understand the pitfalls of simply accepting without analysis the submissions put before them by non-government organisations. It is important that adequate recognition be given to the role and views of governments which are democratically elected and which take their treaty com­mitments and reporting obligations seriously. The committees need also to be more balanced and strategic about targeting key human rights offenders and avoid unfairly focusing their criticism on countries with good human rights records.


For some years now Australia has, together with a number of other countries including Canada, New Zealand and Norway, been advocating reform of the treaty committees. Most recently, the Australian Mission to the United Nations in Geneva hosted a meeting of around 20 countries to discuss treaty committee reform. The United Nations itself has also recognised the need for reform of the treaty committee system, and Australia has been fully supportive of these international reform efforts.


Australia intends now to broaden such efforts by spearheading a high-level diplomatic initiative to garner broad support for reforms to improve the functioning of the committees and their operations. Reforms could include the provision of adequate resources to the human rights treaty committees, improvements to their working methods, standardised rules of procedure when considering states' reports, and better consultation between the committees themselves to coordinate reporting timetables and to facilitate cooperative work on reform issues. But Australia does not have a monopoly on good ideas, and we want to work closely with UN officials and with like-minded countries to make the treaty committee system work more effectively for the good of all member states and for the protection of human rights.


We will therefore be talking widely with others to develop concrete proposals for reform. We will raise these issues in the General Assembly, at the Commission on Human Rights and in other appropriate meetings. We also think that the regular meetings of states parties to the six human rights treaties should discuss reform issues and provide guidance to the respective committees on their working methods.


Australia wants to maximise the effectiveness of the treaty bodies. We will not shy away from our responsibilities, but will press for the reforms that are needed to make the system work well and achieve its objectives. If reform doesn't occur, the committee system will increasingly be ignored and made redundant. That would be a setback for the cause of human rights.


Peacekeeping and international security


I turn now to the matter of peacekeeping and the maintenance of international security.


Peacekeeping and peace operations


Australia has a long and honourable tradition as a participant in UN peacekeeping operations, most recently in East Timor. And I believe that the strength of our commitment is reflected in the recent appointment by the Secretary-General of Australian Major-General Tim Ford as his military adviser.


The experience of the 1990s has clearly shown that the UN's ability to meet an expanding and increasingly complex range of peacekeeping demands is under strain. The decade witnessed some important successes in peacekeeping - notably East Timor, but also some smaller, unheralded operations. But it also saw some tragic failures, the costs of which were often measured in human lives.


I commend the Secretary-General's commitment to blunt scrutiny and review of the UN's performance, including the reports on Srebrenica and Rwanda. We particularly commend his initiative in convening the Brahimi Panel on UN Peace Operations. The Brahimi Report is a landmark document setting out a blueprint for modernising the UN's peacekeeping and related functions. We must move expeditiously to consider its recommendations.


Let me highlight briefly five points that, in Australia's view, are among the most significant lessons of recent experiences.


First, military intervention must be used only as a last resort. All efforts must be made to find peaceful solutions. In this context, we welcome the Brahimi Report's emphasis on preventive action and peace‑building.


Second, where the UN is deployed, there must be a peace to keep. There are real dangers in sending troops indefinitely into harm's way in the absence of a clear peace plan and reasonable prospects for achieving it. Disputing parties must be committed to peace, and must be held accountable for their actions.


Third, peace operations must have a mandate from the Security Council that is appropriate to the job they are being asked to do. If the environment is hostile, they must be appropriately equipped and able to project credible force.


Fourth, deployment must take place quickly once a decision is taken by the Security Council. Delays can lead to the further deterioration of a situation, and can cost lives. The Brahimi Report offers a number of useful ideas to speed deployment which merit careful consideration.


Fifth, UN peace operations must have a clear exit strategy. This is linked in particular to the clarity of Council mandates: as the Brahimi Report rightly stresses, mandates must be clear, credible and achievable. It is also linked to the efficacy of accompanying peace processes and peace-building efforts.


We welcome the attention given to these issues in the Brahimi Report. We also support the point that the UN must be given the resources it needs to carry out the demands that we make of it. There is no question that the Department of Peacekeeping Operations needs to be strengthened and reformed. Ultimately, it is our responsibility, as member states, to support a stronger and more effective UN peacekeeping capacity. This includes placing the financing of peacekeeping on a surer footing and paying our assessed contributions in full and on time.


East Timor


Mr President, I can not conclude without referring to the question of East Timor.


When I addressed this Assembly one year ago, East Timor was in the throes of the most appalling violence at the hands of a brutal and lawless militia. Since then important progress has been made in restoring security and building the foundations of an independent East Timor. Australia pays tribute to the men and women of INTERFET and of UNTAET for their commitment and in too many cases - their sacrifice.


East Timor faces a long and difficult path to peace and prosperity. Australia is playing a major role in the territory's reconstruction, through the UN and other organisations as well as bilaterally. We are committed for the long term to helping the East Timorese build their emerging nation ‑ not only for the benefit of the East Timorese but in the interests of stability and security in our region.


Regrettably, the pro-integration militia continue to pose a major threat to security and stability. Intimidation and violence against Timorese refugees and humanitarian aid personnel in the camps on the East-West Timor border must be halted. The killing of UNHCR workers earlier this month deserves the world's strongest condemnation. Australia reiterates its call on Indonesia to fulfil its responsibility to provide effective security in West Timor, including by bringing an end to militia activity, bringing to justice those responsible for crimes, creating the necessary conditions for the return of UNHCR, and resolving the refugee situation. We urge the Indonesian authorities to take all possible steps in this direction, including cooperating with the proposed Security Council mission.


Conclusion ‑ keeping the UN relevant


Mr President, if the United Nations is to remain relevant and credible, it must work on its strengths and maintain a strong commitment to a continuing program of reform and renewal. The challenges that face the organisation are formidable, but not insurmountable. The need for change is clear and urgent, but I believe that it is not beyond the ingenuity and good will of our generation to emulate our predecessors in grasping the reform nettle.


At the Millennium Summit, the world's leaders highlighted the need for the United Nations to meet the challenges of the new century. Let us heed their call, and work together with renewed determination and commitment to make this organisation more representative, and much more effective.