As the premier intergovernmental institution for the maintenance of global peace and security, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is commonly perceived as a forum for great-power diplomacy that precludes the participation of civil society. However Australia’s recent experience on the UNSC shows the potential of engagement with non-governmental actors. Australia took its non-permanent seat in 2013 with a vision of a more multilateral and democratic Council as captured in its commitment to ‘Making a Difference for the Small and Medium Countries of the World’. Effective engagement with civil society was instrumental in helping Australia realise this vision.
The role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the international order and the UN system has increased substantially in the last few decades. They share with Australia the general aspiration for inclusive forms of global governance that can work towards collective solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. NGOs can contribute to the operations of intergovernmental institutions by ‘setting agendas, negotiating outcomes, conferring legitimacy and implementing solutions’.
Australia’s UNSC seat in 2013-14 presented an opportunity to involve civil society in pursuit of mutual objectives. Australia focused its term on issues including the protection of civilians; peacekeeping and peacebuilding; human rights; and women, peace and security. This aligned with the aims of many NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and the International Crisis Group which have an active interest in Australia’s participation on the Council.
The work of civil society organisations was crucial in responding to three issues during Australia’s UNSC term: the Syrian civil war, conflict in the Central African Republic and the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.
In Syria, NGOs operating in conflict zones provided high-quality analytical work and data. As the security situation in Damascus was rapidly deteriorating and embassy representatives were evacuating the country, Council members became increasingly reliant on bilateral consultations with NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Crisis Actions to remain informed about the situation on the ground. The advocacy efforts of civil society representatives also brought difficult issues to the attention of Council members and provided legitimacy to Council resolutions. As well as Australia, non-Council members (notably Denmark and Norway) arranged presentations and roundtable discussions with Syrian women’s groups to highlight the impact of the conflict on women and children. Organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières reported extensively on the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons, while Syrian civil society brought attention to the government’s use of barrel bombs on civilians. By including groups that were neither aligned with the Assad regime nor the opposition, these consultations were often more representative of the Syrian population than many other UN processes.
In the Central African Republic, the analytical work provided by NGOs operating in remote areas served an early warning function for the Council. This information allowed the Council to respond in time to prevent the escalation of the conflict into genocide. NGOs also provided compelling statistics that Australia used to bolster its arguments favouring humanitarian intervention in the UNSC.
Additionally, NGOs, notably Médecins Sans Frontières, were crucial in combatting Ebola in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Their advocacy work, as well as the leadership of the US government, resulted in the Council’s decision to pass a resolution urging members to respond to the crisis. This response was ground-breaking, as it involved setting up a peacekeeping-type mission for a health crisis. The role of NGO advocacy was especially important. States were slow to respond, because of the novelty of the threat and the lack of strategic interest in West Africa by many Council members.
To a great extent, Australia and NGOs cooperated effectively during Australia’s most recent term on the UNSC. The world today may be no better than when Australia took its seat, with many significant crises still lacking a viable solution. But without Australia’s creative diplomacy and the active efforts of NGOs, prospects could be dimmer. Even at the highest levels of international dialogue, civil society can have an important role to play.
Duc Dao is an undergraduate student majoring in International Relations at the Australian National University and a former research intern at the AIIA National Office. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alexia Jablonski is a research intern at the AIIA National Office as well as an assistant editor of Australian Outlook. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.