Symposium: Advancing the National Interest?

The Howard Government and the United Nations

Samuel M. Makinda, Murdoch University

In one of my public lectures on the Iraqi crisis in Perth in March 2003, someone asked me why Australia was not a member of the United Nations Security Council. The question arose because Australian Prime Minister John Howard had been urging the Security Council to pass a resolution authorising war. Australian ambassador to the United Nations (UN) John Dauth had spoken twice in the Security Council, but he could not vote. Like United States President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Howard argued that the Security Council would become irrelevant if it did not authorise war.

My answer was that the Howard government had not shown a strong interest in serving on the Security Council. If it had taken a keen interest in the UN processes, and if it had planned well its support for the war against Iraq, Australia would have been a member of the Security Council at the time when crucial decisions were taken on Iraq. The government should have followed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) White Paper of 1997 (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 1997), which stated that Australia would support those sections of the UN that would advance its national interests. The 2003 White Paper also says the government would like to pursue reform of the UN (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2003), but within weeks of its publication Australia had gone to war in violation of the UN Charter.

Another person wanted to know when Australia had last served on the Security Council. I replied that Australia had last had a seat on the Council in 1985–86, and that it was among the first six non-permanent members to serve on the Security Council in 1946–47. In subsequent years, Australia served on the Council every ten or eleven years. Australia won seats on the Security Council in 1946–47, 1956–57, 1973–74, and 1985–86. I reminded my audience that since the Cold War ended, Australia has not served on the Security Council. Australia’s chance of serving on the Council in future would depend partly on how much the Howard government was prepared to fight for the seat and partly on how other states assessed its global role.

A third person asked whether Australia would take much notice of the Security Council’s position on Iraq. I replied that Prime Minister John Howard had consistently said that Australia would accept the Security Council position only if it legitimised the American war plan. Howard’s claim that he would brush aside ‘an unreasonable veto’ signalled Australia’s intention to disregard the Security Council position if it was not in accord with American interests.

Use of the term ‘unreasonable veto’ and Howard’s support for pre-emptive military action demonstrate a form of revisionism that will engender instability, unpredictability, and uncertainty in the world. Australia and its pro-war coalition have introduced a new element in the UN debate. I speculated that Howard’s pursuit of a war against Iraq and his apparent disregard for international norms and rules will probably harm Australia’s chances of serving on the Security Council in the near future.

The White Paper and the UN

Australia has not served on the Security Council since the Cold War ended.

Governments propagate foreign affairs White Papers to outline their long-term policy vision on specific issues. The language, assumptions, and perspective of the Howard government’s first White Paper of 1997 demonstrate that there was a genuine attempt to provide long-term goals and strategies (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 1997). However, the 2003 White Paper looks like a rough draft crafted from ministerial media releases. Its references to the UN and to Iraq convey an impression of what the government intends to do in the next week or month, rather than a policy vision for the next five years or more.

Both White Papers were designed to suggest that under the Howard government, foreign policy was firmly grounded in realism; hence the titles In the National Interest, for the 1997 Paper, and Advancing the National Interest, for the 2003 Paper. Many realists assume that the UN is of little significance except as an instrument in the pursuit of national interests, so the 1997 White Paper was not expected to embrace the UN in the way the previous Labor government had done. Accordingly, the 1997 White Paper stated that Australia needed ‘to direct resources and support to those areas of the UN system which most advance Australia’s national interests’ (p. 46). This implies that if going to war with Iraq was in Australia’s national interest, then the government should have used its resources to ensure that it was a member of the Security Council to provide the vote the United States and the United Kingdom needed. In the National Interest further stated:

The UN’s importance to Australia is in core areas of international security and disarmament, environment, human rights machinery, targeted development programs, and those technical agencies dealing with issues such as agriculture, refugees and international nuclear safeguards, all of which engage important Australian national interests (p. 46).

The 1997 White Paper also made references to the need for reform to the UN, again with a view to advancing Australia’s national interests.

The 2003 White Paper, labelled Advancing the National Interest, builds on the earlier one. Indeed, the phrase ‘advancing the national interest’ is used in the first White Paper many times. Advancing the National Interest recognises that the UN can serve as an instrument for enhancing Australia’s security (p. 25). This paper also discusses structural and administrative reform of the UN, and its role in the fight against terrorism. The paper also regards the UN as a forum for discussing the control of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

Advancing the National Interest suggests that Australia would like to see the structures and administration of the UN reformed so that it reflects contemporary realities. The White Paper specifically mentions the long overdue reform of the Security Council also supported by the previous Labor government. That World War II victors remain the only permanent members of the Security Council is outmoded. Moreover, permanent membership of the Council not only implies that a nuclear weapons capacity is highly valued, but it also fails to reflect global demographics. Africa and Latin America have no permanent members on the Council, but they comprise 45 per cent of the UN members. Asia, which comprises 28 per cent of UN members and more than 50 per cent of the world’s population has only one permanent member on the Council, while Western Europe, with less than fifteen per cent of the UN membership, has two permanent seats.

Australia would like to see UN structures reformed to reflect contemporary realities.

Advancing the National Interest also discusses the reform of the five electoral groups within the UN. These groups are Africa (53 states), Asia (53 states), Latin America and the Caribbean (33 states), West European and Other States (WEOSG) (30 states, including Australia) and Eastern Europe (21 states). Reform of these groups is particularly important for Australia, which has found it increasingly hard to serve in key UN bodies since the Cold War ended. Indeed, Australia has not served on the Security Council since 1985–86 partly because competition is now tougher and requires commitment of substantial resources. The White Paper claims that ‘Australia will continue to press for a wholesale reconfiguration of these electoral groups, under which we would expect to be grouped with other countries from the Asia-Pacific region’ (p. 24). However, Australia’s continuing alienation of several Asian countries, especially since John Howard became Prime Minister in 1996, is likely to make this goal harder to attain.

On the fight against terrorism, Advancing the National Interest proclaims that ‘Australia supports strongly the UN Counter-terrorism Committee’, which was established to help members of the UN strengthen their capacity to tackle terrorism. It states that Australia is ‘already a party to eleven of the twelve UN counter-terrorism conventions and [is] considering becoming party to the remaining one’ (p. 41). It claims that Australia will ‘continue to lobby countries in [its] region to accede to these conventions’ (p. 41). The White Paper proudly proclaims: ‘We were instrumental in the listing by the United Nations of the extremist Jemaah Islamiyah organisation, obliging UN members to take action to freeze its assets and restrict its freedom of movement’ (p. 41). The White Paper tries to link terrorism with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and acknowledges that the UN is a forum for addressing both problems.

Both White Papers suggest that Australia should view the UN as an instrument for advancing its national interests. In this sense, Australia is like many other countries, which seek to exploit the UN to their advantage. However, Australia’s relations with the UN during the Howard government have been sometimes stormy.

Howard and the UN

From his accession to power in early 1996, Howard has shown little interest in the United Nations. After losing the bid to secure a Security Council seat in 1996, he radically reduced Australia’s commitment to the UN (the groundwork for the Security Council bid was laid by Paul Keating’s government). Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer believed that the Keating government had paid too much attention to UN peacekeeping and other multilateral issues at the expense of bilateral relations. Apart from leading a successful UN-authorised international intervention force (INTERFET) in East Timor in 1999, the Howard government has not done much to support the UN or engineer the reforms promised in the 1997 White Paper. Further, the Howard government’s record on human rights, the environment, and refugees has been criticised by the relevant UN agencies, despite the 1997 White Paper’s endorsement of the role of the UN in these areas.

Howard has shown little interest in the United Nations.

The Howard government’s position on the UN contrasts sharply with Australia’s past relations with the world body. Prior to 1996, Australia played important roles in the UN for five decades. It participated in drafting the UN Charter, and was keen to ensure that the interests of medium and small powers were taken into account. At the insistence of the then Australian External Affairs Minister, H. V. Evatt, and the representatives of other medium and small states, Articles 10 and 12 were inserted in the UN Charter authorising the UN General Assembly to discuss any matter and make recommendations to the Security Council. This gave small powers an opportunity to debate security issues.

Moreover, Australia held the presidency of the UN General Assembly in 1948 when the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Universal Declaration is generally regarded as the source of subsequent human rights instruments, such as the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Australia went on to play high-profile roles in promoting human rights, environmental initiatives, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and Cambodian peace process, among other things. The Howard government’s decision to go to war with Iraq at a time when the UN Security Council thought a peaceful resolution to the problem was possible is a sharp departure from Australia’s post-war policy.

War outside UN framework

The Prime Minister has argued that the war against Iraq is legal on the basis of three Security Council Resolutions: 678, 687, and 1441. Close examination of these resolutions shows he is mistaken. Only Resolution 678 of 29 October 1990 authorised the use of force to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait, but only if Iraq had not left Kuwait by 15 January 1991. This resolution cannot be invoked now because Iraqi forces were expelled from Kuwait in early 1991.

Resolution 678 was overridden by the ceasefire contained in Resolution 687 of 3 April 1991. This resolution demanded the disarmament of Iraq. Howard claims that by failing to comply fully with Resolution 687, Iraq violated the terms of the ceasefire and so the countries that expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 were free to use force against it. Unfortunately, Resolution 687 did not state so. The resolution stated that a formal ceasefire would be effective once Iraq had notified the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council that it had accepted the terms of the resolution. According to Resolution 687, any non-compliance by Iraq would have to be reported to the Council, and it is the Council that would ‘take such further steps as may be required for the implementation’ of the resolution and ‘to secure peace and security in the region’.

The Prime Minister has argued that the war against Iraq is legal—he is mistaken.

This leads us to the third resolution, namely 1441 of 8 November 2002. This resolution gives Iraq one final chance to disarm and warns of severe consequences should it fail to co-operate and to comply fully and immediately with the terms of the resolution. Whether Iraq had co-operated and complied fully with the resolution was a matter of debate. The United States and Britain argued that it had not, but other Security Council members believed that there was sufficient cooperation.

Whatever the differing interpretations of Iraq’s behaviour, Resolution 1441 did not give any country authority to wage war outside the UN framework. It says that the Security Council would ‘convene immediately upon receipt of a report’ on weapons inspections ‘in order to consider the situation and the need for full compliance with all of the relevant Council resolutions in order to secure international peace and security’. In the debate on Resolution 1441, British ambassador to the UN, Jeremy Greenstock, said ‘We heard loud and clear during the negotiations the concerns about automaticity [sic] and hidden triggers’. As co-sponsor of the Resolution with the United States, Greenstock said ‘There is no automaticity in this Resolution. If there is further Iraqi breach of its disarmament obligations, the matter will return to the Council for discussion as required’ (Greenstock 2002).

Given the terms of Resolutions 678, 687, and 1441, the war against Iraq had no legal basis. Therefore, the United States, Britain, and Australia should be considered occupying powers, their position similar to Israel’s in Gaza and the West Bank.

Australia, the UN, and international order

The White Papers imply that Australia should view the UN through realist lenses. Realism claims that its adherents recognise the world as it is. However, Howard’s decision to go to war with Iraq and his support for pre-emptive military action—like the American plan to invade Iraq and restructure the Middle Eastern political order—betray a form of revisionism best described as neo-conservative idealism.

The war against Iraq also stems from American unilateralism. If this trend continues, it will hurt rather than advance Australia’s national interests. As a middle power, without huge military and economic resources, Australia would benefit more from an international order based on respect for international law, norms and institutions, than on one predicated on the military preponderance of one superpower. The violation of international law and support for pre-emptive actions are not in Australia’s national interest. International relations theorist, Hedley Bull, defined international order in terms of the respect that states and other international actors have for the major global institutions, including international law. By going to war with Iraq without UN authority, Australia has subverted the norms, rules, principles, and institutions that underpin international order.


Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 1997, In the National Interest, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra [Online], Available:

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2003, Advancing the National Interest Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra [Online], Available:

Greenstock, J. 2002. Statement by Ambassador Greenstock to the Security Council, Explanation of Vote on Security Council Resolution 1441 on Iraq, 8 November [Online], Available:

Samuel Makinda is Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Studies at Murdoch University.