Leveraging power at the UN

28 May 2019

We’re in a secure room of the Australian Mission at UN Headquarters, on a chilly December day in New York.

No electronic equipment is permitted – no laptops, no mobiles, no cameras – but we do have the undivided attention of everyone in this room.

We’re here to brief the incoming member countries who are about to commence their two-year elected, non-permanent term on the UN Security Council.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Security Council is controlled by the five permanent members (P5) – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States. They have powers of veto over the additional 10 members who are elected to serve two-year terms.

Those 10 members come from the 188 UN member states that are not permanent members of the council.

So when a country serves a two-year elected term on the council – as Australia did in 2013–2014 – they must use innovative diplomacy if they want their voice heard.As a popular political saying goes, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” But with the UN Security Council, even when you’re at the table, if you’re not in the P5, the pathways of influence are limited.

We have been invited to brief the incoming members – Belgium, Dominican Republic, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa – on the preliminary findings of our four-year research project which investigates diplomatic practices that can help elected members wield more influence on the council, and the world stage.

Our research project challenges the conventional wisdom of unfettered P5 predominance.

Three findings stand out:

• smart diplomacy: be creative and innovative in setting precedents through diplomatic practice; keep in mind the UN Charter is a flexible instrument and the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council offer a great deal of diplomatic leeway.

• responsible diplomacy: cultivate good working relations with permanent members, while making it clear that your diplomatic support cannot be taken for granted.

• networked diplomacy: harness and invest in diplomatic networks and coalitions in and around the council.

Our research project challenges the conventional wisdom of unfettered P5 predominance. By drawing on recent experiences of elected members and the larger UN membership, we have teased out how elected members can influence the council’s decision-making and norm development.

By sharing our project findings with future non-permanent member states, we can help them to better understand when and how they shape council outcomes; evaluate the factors that affect their capacity to advance an agenda despite the opposition of one or more permanent members; identify the most promising pathways by which they can influence council decision-making.

The reason we have been chosen to brief the incoming members is the unique combination of professional experience and academic background that we bring to the table.

Our project team comprises four international lawyers and political scientists from three universities. Together we co-run the ARC Discovery Project, Leveraging Power and Influence on the UN Security Council: the Role of Elected Members, which commenced in 2016 and received the highest ARC funding among law, political science/IR and sociology disciplines.

In terms of professional experience with the UN, I was a member of the delegation of the European Union to the UN in 1995–96. I also served in the Policy Planning Unit of the UN Department of Political Affairs in 2002. My colleague Jeremy Farrall from ANU College of Law served in the Security Council Affairs Division from 2001–2004.

We are able to bridge the gap between the academic and policy worlds. As researchers, we have the critical distance from the daily policy grind. At the same time, our previous policy exposure allows us to develop recommendations that practitioners may find useful in their daily work.

This opportunity to brief the incoming non-permanent member states, ahead of their two-year term, is a landmark opportunity to assist non-P5 countries to shape decision-making and have more influence during their term on the council.

*Dr Jochen Prantl is an Associate Professor in the ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy. _ _This article originally appeared in ANU Reporter - May 2019

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