Australia and the United Nations” book launch

Speech, E&OE, (check against delivery)

7 February 2013


Before I begin I would like to thank two of my colleagues — Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith — for their initiative in commissioning this significant text — and particularly Kevin for his decision to launch our bid for our 5th term in the UN Security Council in 2013-14.

I would also like to thank David Lee from DFAT and James Cotton from the University of NSW — both present here today — for their tireless efforts and penmanship over three years to put this book together.


Those of us who are asked to review or launch important books are always on the look-out for the opportunity to use the word “magisterial”.

In launching Australia and the United Nations I seize that opportunity with zest.

This book is indeed magisterial.

But let me hasten to say it’s more than that.

It’s a good read, a good story.

And it’s a good Australian story.

None of the authors — even in the more technical chapters — have been overwhelmed by the diversity and complexity of the subject.

Just consider one aspect of the challenge they faced.

The book lists five pages of acronyms — nearly 200 of them.

Our intrepid authors have all found their way through this thicket to give us a clear narrative.

This book is the product of a special tradition, nurtured now for five decades within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

It springs from the decisions of 1967 by Paul Hasluck, then Minister for External Affairs, that the department should be its own historian.

So he set up what is now the Historical Publications and Information Section within the Department.

The bedrock of the tradition that he initiated is the truly superb Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937-1949.

The first volume in this indispensable series was edited by R.G. Neale in 1975.

And the tradition was ably continued by W.J. Hudson in 1968.

It’s no accident that Sir Paul Hasluck was a fine historian himself.

He served under Doc Evatt during the formation of the UN in Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco.

And if we take the tremendous period as the emergence of Foreign Affairs as the sturdy, reliable Department of state we have today, than it can be said that it was born in the crucible of modern history, and born with a sense of history.

Not that this book is in any sense a departmental history.

It is nothing less than the story of Australia’s involvement in the great, sometimes terrible events, of the tumultuous years since the foundation of the United Nations nearly 70 years ago.

The epigraph of this book is a quotation from Dr Evatt’s statement to the House of Representatives on March 13, 1946, pledging Australia to “enthusiastic and sustained activity in all aspects of the work of the United Nations.”

Dr Evatt said:

“We shall continue steadfastly and courageously to play a part in the Organisation on which must rest most of the hopes of men of goodwill throughout the world.”

This book is the story of how Australia has tried to keep this pledge.

I mention in particular human rights and peacekeeping.

Peacekeeping remains one of the UN’s greatest accomplishments.

As the President of the General Assembly in 2008, Srgjan Kerim put it:

“For many souls rising from the aftermath of a conflict, peacekeeping is the United Nations”.

Australia has the honour of being part of a “peacekeeping mission” even before the term was officially used by the UN.

Indeed, as this book outlines, Australia has grounds for claiming credit for the first UN peacekeeping mission when a party of military observers from six member countries was sent to oversee the ceasefire between Indonesia and the Dutch in 1947.

Since then Australia has contributed more than 65,000 troops as UN Forces to more than 50 UN mandated operations.

In the Introduction, the co-editor Professor James Cotton makes a point often overlooked — the two-way effect of our commitment to the UN.

Professor Cotton writes:

“Australia’s contribution to the promotion of human rights and international law at the United Nations began with the drafting of the Charter; Article 56, which enjoins member states to observe the human rights specified in Article 55, termed the ‘Australia pledge’”.

But then, as Dr Cotton writes:

“The emerging UN human rights regime also had a strong impact on Australia’s own policy, informing legislation on racial and gender discrimination, the status of women and Indigenous rights”.

And here we can see that this is not only a story about actors and decisions by government, by Ministers and officials and delegations.

It is a story about the people of Australia themselves — and the kind of country they are creating.

Specifically I refer to the ditching of the White Australia Policy.

The chapters in this book on the League of Nations and the early years of the United Nations make it painfully clear the inhibitions and hypocrisies the Policy imposed on Australia’s international role.

White Australia was abandoned quite rapidly in the years of Harold Holt’s Prime Ministership from 1966.

And it was the Whitlam Prime Ministership in 1973 that liberated us from this burden, from the deadweight of an exhausted idea.

Leadership was important but in the final analysis, it was the work of the people of Australia.

The final merit of this book is its timing.

It comes just as we embark on Australia’s fifth term on the UN Security Council.

It’s a timely reminder of the fine tradition Australia has forged in the UN.

Security challenges in almost every region of the world require swift action by the Council.

North Korea’s recent rocket launch again reminds us that the country’s nuclear activities continue to pose a serious threat to regional and global stability.

The situation in Mali draws attention to the major humanitarian crises on the African continent, not just in Mali but in other African nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The crisis in Syria is deepening.

It’s already claimed 60,000 lives, left more than two million homeless and worsened insecurity in the Middle East.

We raised our plan to protect medical workers and maintain access to health facilities in Syria as soon as we joined the Council.

Australia has a number of priorities that we will pursue during our term.

These include:

On this last point, the reality is that many small and medium-sized countries, especially small island developing states, feel marginalised and powerless in the UN system.

They feel their voices are not heard or their interests properly represented.

Being a voice for small and medium nations was the very essence of our campaign for our seat on the Council.

As this book attests, Australia has the credentials to take on this role.

And to continue the tradition the Australian delegation to San Francisco in 1945 began.

The former Foreign Minister of Israel, Abba Eban, once said:

“Men and nations often behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives”.

Perhaps the real story of the book is that we can sometimes act wisely before we reach the limits of stupidity.

I congratulate the editors, authors and the publishers, Longueville Media.

I congratulate the department and the Historical Publications Section.

This book, with the story it tells, is another splendid reason why I am proud to be the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Ministerial head of this great Department.


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