David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting

UNAAThis was the title of a conference of the United Nations Association of Australia (UNAA) held in Sydney on 25-26 July 2014, which I attended. The structure of the program meant that the first day focused on the centenary of World War 1 and the efforts during that war and since then to build global peace mechanisms. The second day focused more on current activities and the ways forward.

Daryl Le Cornu (Australian Catholic University) spoke of how WW1 interrupted moves for a more peaceful world as exemplified in the Hague conference of 1901 which established principles of international law. The peace movement was in shock when the war broke out, but re-grouped in UK, USA and Europe to promote ideas of international governance. Women were especially prominent in this work for peace, to work for a world that could prevent hostilities. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was formed in 1915. President Woodrow Wilson of USA took up the idea of a League of Nations. The war could have ended earlier if some of the moves to bring the opposing leaders together had been taken up. The peace treaty included the League of Nations concept, although regrettably the US did not join.

James Cotton (Australian Defence Force Academy) described the emergence of the League of Nations and Australia’s response. Our membership of the League was the first international recognition of our status as a nation. The League dealt with issues such as economic governance, copyright, and drugs. The League of Nations Union (precursor to UNAA) helped raise public awareness and commented on such issues as disarmament, and developed a school syllabus on international affairs. There were regular radio reports from Geneva about the League’s work, especially as it moved increasingly into social and economic focus (foreshadowing the UN’s specialised agencies).

David Lee (Dept of Foreign Affairs & Trade) spoke of the solid record of the United Nations in peacemaking since 1945. Dr HV Evatt played a crucial role in making the structure more democratic, and although he failed to prevent the Great Powers from having a veto in the Security Council, he did achieve a stronger role for the General Assembly. During the first 30 years of its existence, the UN (mainly through the Security Council) managed to resolve major conflicts in the Middle East, Indonesia, and the North Pacific. Australia contributed in the peacekeeping work from the beginning. The UN had a major role in decolonisation, especially in Africa and Asia, and of course Australia helped with East Timor’s independence.

Jeni Whalan (University of NSW) focused on peacekeeping. She drew attention to the spotlight put on peacekeeping operations by some very bad behavior by some peacekeepers in committing sexual violence in Africa and spreading cholera in Haiti. The result has been a careful revision of UN protocols, greater sensitivity to cultural factors when deploying forces, and better coordination of the work. The endless demand for peacekeeping activities has stretched resources, and the use of unarmed drones may become more common for surveillance purposes. The importance of peacekeepers being more accountable to those communities they serve will lead to codes of conduct and closer engagement of local people in designing operations. Australia could help through its experience especially in policing work.

Anne-Marie Watt (DFAT) reported on Australia’s role on the Security Council in 2013-4. Despite the fact that the Permanent 5 (US, UK, France, China and Russia) have a well-established dynamic for running the Council, Australia has gained credibility in working for consensus on such issues as non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, small arms, humanitarian issues, peacekeeping, and women, peace and security. In particular cases (e.g. Ukraine) it has played a leading role in getting agreement of all members for international action for peace and justice.

Tanya Ogilvie-White (Australian National University) was the first of three speakers on the nuclear weapons challenge. Parts of the UN are doing important work, but the intransigence of the Permanent 5 in seeking to enhance their nuclear capabilities has been a major blockage to progress. There is an urgent need for new partnerships among non-P5 governments and NGOs to break the cycle of the arms race, and there are positive signs that Germany, Norway and Mexico are moving in this way. John Hallam (People for Nuclear Disarmament) said that the UN could not manage a nuclear crisis. The “mistakes” that had occurred in almost launching missiles have had to be handled by military people. Sue Wareham(Medical Association for the Prevention of War) outlined the enormous damage that would be caused by nuclear weapons being used, and the ongoing cost of maintaining them. More countries are likely to want them unless a treaty to ban them is achieved soon. Australia should be challenged to end its support for nuclear deterrence.

Maj-Gen. Tim Ford (Peacekeeping Memorial) described the planned memorial for Anzac Parade in Canberra to honour all those who have served in peacekeeping missions. A widely representative committee has already achieved a location and a design, and now seeks to complete the fundraising (another $3m or so) to get the memorial built before 2017.

Mike Smith (Macquarie University, formerly UN Counter-Terrorism Directorate) reminded us that the UN has been in the counter-terrorism field for 40 years and has developed many international conventions on difference areas (including hijacking, kidnapping etc.). The General Assembly and the Security Council have taken greater interest recently, and member states have been required to be more pro-active in their own policies to address the causes of terrorism and to share technical and legal advice, while respecting human rights. The biggest challenge is to counteract the “terrorist narrative” by using respected leaders to articulate a different vision from the death-focussed scenarios used to recruit young people.

Steven Freeland (University of Western Sydney) highlighted the emergence of outer space as an area for potential conflict and war. As a result the means and methods of warfare in space may not be subject to the laws applying to conflicts on earth. More precision technology may reduce casualties but may also encourage long distance warfare and moral disengagement from the effects. Militarisation of space is becoming a reality, as the military become customers of commercial satellite owners. Progress towards a treaty to prevent this trend is slow, and a code of conduct is unlikely to work as well. Australia can contribute more to ensuring that the world community is not exposed to the threat of space wars.

Ming Yu (Amnesty) spoke about the flow of arms around the world, mainly from the P5 countries and Germany. In April 2013, after a strong campaign led by Amnesty and supported by the Australian Government, most countries agreed to adopt a global arms trade treaty which should be ratified by 50 countries shortly and come into effect. The mechanisms for enforcing the treaty are still being worked out, and Amnesty is striving for standards that will prevent violence.

Steve Killelea (Institute of Economics & Peace) reported on the development of the Global Peace Index (GPI) over the past seven years. It uses “absence of violence” and “positive peace” as guidelines for assessing the level of peace in different countries (so far 162). Peace has declined slightly over the 7 years, mainly as a result of terrorism and homicide increasing. Eliminating corruption would make a big difference to the level of violence. The GPI is a resource that can be used to identify priority areas for working for peace. The intention is to improve ways of measuring and sustaining peace.

Chris Hamer (World Citizens of Australia) drew upon the story of William Penn as one of the first people to advocate a European parliament/government. A global parliament is a way to gain global peace, and the European Parliament is a model for moving in that direction. Coalitions of NGOs have already been successful in campaigning for an international criminal court and a doctrine of “responsibility to protect”. The most fruitful way for moving forward is for a world community of democracies to be formed.

The conference was well attended and gave much encouragement to work for peace and justice.

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