Australia's UN Security Council bid holds out promise of a big let-down

Outline of Australia's case for UN Security Council bid

Paul McGeough Washington The Age October 13, 2012

Visitors to Manhattan get a pro forma warning to be wary of cheats and spivs. But the real danger lurks down on the banks of the East River - that's where you find a more brazen breed of New York scoundrel.

If you venture this way, don't be fooled by their smart and, sometimes, wildly colourful dress. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security by the business cards they proffer - introducing the bearer as a diplomat at this or that national mission to the United Nations.

Indeed they are diplomats. But at this time of year, a good number of them are unabashed liars.

That's because on Thursday, the United Nations starts voting to replace five of the 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. It's a time when national prestige is put to the test - or, in the words of Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, who is managing Canberra's $25 million-plus campaign for a seat on the council: "It's about Australia's ego."

These berths are allocated within groups of nations - Australia faces fierce competition from the opposite side of the globe, from Finland and Luxembourg, for the two seats allocated to the Western European and Other Group (WEOG) of countries.

None of the three are claiming victory - that would be undiplomatic. But privately, expressions of "quiet confidence" and "cautious optimism" are voiced in the three camps.

That is surprising, because all 193 UN member countries get to vote, and to be appointed, candidates need a two-thirds majority - 129 or more votes.

A diplomat close to one of the campaigns observed: "We try to win votes for us - not against the others."

But because this is a secret ballot, the least inoffensive way to inform a fellow diplomat that you will not be voting for his or her capital's candidacy is to tell them that you will vote their way. Thus liars are born.

To its chagrin, Canberra discovered this in a failed Security Council bid in 1996 - about 40 per cent of its "promised" vote evaporated when it came to the actual ballot.

Despite that sad history, an Australian official recently suggested to The Saturday Age that this time around, Canberra's hopes to be elected rested in part on what might be described as a "diplomatic reverse ferret" - crashing through as the beneficiary of broken pledges of support to Finland and Luxembourg.

This week, several close observers of the business of the UN assured The Saturday Age that some ambassadors became so caught up in its club-like machinations that they voted secretly against the wishes of their own capital for the sake of "in-house" deals struck on the floor of the General Assembly.

"A lot is determined by the dynamic in the room, especially when the vote goes to another round," offered a European diplomat who asked not to be named.

Several diplomats voiced sympathy for Slovenia, suggesting that such horse-trading was the cause for it being edged out by Azerbaijan in last year's ballot - after 17 rounds of voting in which Slovenia was seen to start as a clear favourite.

In the same round, Hungary, the then holder of the European Union presidency, was expected to poll well but dropped out after winning 52 votes in the first round. It came back into the field in the fifth round of voting, but won just a single vote - presumably its own. Apart from their exemplary performance as UN members - pitching in as peacekeepers, as donors and in holding to the terms of the UN charter - this year's three WEOG candidates and their surrogates argue the nitty-gritty of their candidacies behind closed doors.

This is an art form in itself. In a series of only-for-background interviews with The Saturday Age, understandings were shared and observations made on which capitals might support a particular candidate and, ahem, which particular candidates might be in trouble - and why.

Australia's chances were boosted by the mere fact that it was not European - Caribbean countries in particular have been offended by the success of a campaign for the EU to have a bigger voice in UN forums. But last year, Canada tried the same argument and it was not elected - and it has announced that it will vote for Finland and Luxembourg this week because they voted for it last year.

It made sense, several sources argued, to have one continental voice and one "other" voice on the Security Council - that is, Australia.

On the other hand, each is making a pitch for smaller countries to have a voice - particularly Luxembourg, which claims to be one of only five countries never to have served on the council.

Australia might have a problem in garnering the votes of Arab, African and Muslim countries because of its customary support for Israel and the US.

"Canberra is trying to look as if it won't follow Washington's lead," observed an Asian diplomat.

A comparative study of this year's votes on Palestinian issues by Australia, Finland and Luxembourg, which is circulating at the UN, puts Canberra at the back of the field.

All three had been broadly supportive of the Palestinians, but in the 16 votes, Australia had voted in Israel's favour five times and abstained twice, whereas Finland and Luxembourg had voted for the Palestinian side 13 times and abstained three times, according to the study.

At home, the Gillard government is under fire for a recent show of tentative support for the Palestinian cause - "a perceptible weakening" of long-standing support for Israel, as it was described by opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop.

But in New York, an Arab diplomat welcomed what he described as Australia's "evolving" support for the Palestinian cause.

Alluding to reports on differences between Ms Gillard and her predecessor Kevin Rudd on how Australia should vote on a bid to elevate the standing of the Palestinian mission to the UN - Ms Gillard opposed, while Mr Rudd proposed abstention - the diplomat observed that the Security Council vote would be held first and despite the media reports, he understood that Ms Gillard's position was not final.

Despite this, a European diplomat argued there was little heat in the "servant of Washington" argument because all three WEOG candidates were expected to support the US on all key issues.

A complaint held against Australia in some quarters is that it is a Johnny-come-lately to this contest because in launching its bid in 2008, it was six years behind both Luxembourg and Finland.

It might be diplomatic, but the perceived conduct of candidates for elevation at the UN is not necessarily dignified.

A European diplomat described it thus: "You're not going to offend or upset people - the positions you take are less strident and there is less to be gained by going out on a limb."

So what chance has Australia?

"It's too close to call for any of us," said a diplomat connected to one of the two European campaigns. You have to deduct 15 to 25 per cent from whatever vote you think you've been promised because a big bunch always goes missing.

"You can't trust these people at all."