November 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Heavy lifting

By Nick Bryant
Gary Quinlan and Julie Bishop have done Australia proud at the UN Security Council

In July, hurriedly convening his national security team in Canberra as the scattered wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 still smouldered in Ukraine and looters picked at the bodies of the dead, Prime Minister Tony Abbott started to push the idea of a resolution at the United Nations Security Council. The resolution would demand an international investigation, along with immediate, unfettered access to the crash site.

As leader of the Opposition, Abbott had ridiculed the Labor government’s $25 million campaign to join one of world diplomacy’s most exclusive clubs. He had regarded it as a Rudd vanity project, one that came with an excessive price tag. Now, however, membership of the 15-member council proved invaluable. It thrust Canberra into the vanguard of the international diplomatic response. It gave the Abbott government a seat at the famed horseshoe table in New York.

Julie Bishop, dialling in to the Canberra meeting from Sydney, said she would have to speak to Gary Quinlan about Abbott’s plan for UN action. At this point the prime minister interjected. Unbeknown to the foreign affairs minister, Quinlan, who normally plies his trade half a planet away, was alongside Abbott at the cabinet table. Over the next 72 hours, as the resolution took shape, the soft-spoken Quinlan became its key architect. The Abbott government’s response was placed in the hands of a seasoned diplomat more used to attending meetings of the National Security Committee in his former guise: as Kevin Rudd’s most trusted foreign policy adviser.

Ordinarily, Ambassador Quinlan could be found seated behind the AUSTRALIA nameplate at the Security Council. And that was where he soon headed, with the aim of securing a resolution that other nations would support and Russia would not veto – no mean task given Moscow’s presumed complicity in the MH17 crash. Back in Manhattan, the diplomatic dexterity that enabled Quinlan to move from Rudd insider to Abbott point man came into its own. The key negotiation, conducted at ten o’clock the following Sunday night, was with Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, a silver-haired former Soviet apparatchik and a black belt in the dark arts of negative statecraft. By the time Julie Bishop herself reached Manhattan the next day, Quinlan believed he had finessed a draft that Churkin and his masters in Moscow could live with. In a mid-morning meeting with Bishop at Australia’s UN mission, Churkin, who as a child had acted in Kremlin propaganda movies, indicated that he would raise his hand to support the resolution at the Security Council.

The rapid passage of such a sensitively worded resolution handed Abbott and his foreign affairs minister a ringing diplomatic success. They both deserve credit, Abbott for embarking on the UN resolution, and Bishop for being so unyielding in her face-to-face with Churkin. (Bishop has impressed officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with her work ethic and mastery of briefs, in marked contrast to her predecessor, Bob Carr.) But Quinlan navigated the path.

The jovial, avuncular Quinlan had been hand-picked by Rudd in 2009 to be Australia’s permanent representative at the UN and to spearhead the push for council membership. Popular among his colleagues in Turtle Bay, the riverside home of the UN, Quinlan ran a clever campaign. It even extended to ferrying foreign diplomats to see Hugh Jackman’s one-man show on Broadway, which at least one senior Western diplomat reckoned was the clincher.

Quinlan himself is the opposite of a showman. Unlike his American and Russian counterparts, who regularly use the Security Council chamber as a stage for geopolitical theatrics, he eschews the kind of point-scoring that can stand in the way of constructive diplomacy. Rather, his quietly efficient manner lends itself to consensus-building.

As a result, Quinlan has enhanced Australia’s status on the Security Council. While it cannot rival the Permanent Five – denied veto power, no temporary member ever can – Australia has unquestionably become the most significant and energetic player among the nations elected to a two-year term. It deserves to be called a “temporary member plus”.

This enhanced role was evident in September 2013 when Australia presided over the Security Council, a rotating presidency it will this month hold again. Quinlan had to contend with not only a change of government in Canberra but also a council deadlocked over its response to the Assad regime in Syria: hundreds of civilians were slaughtered as chemical weapons rained down on suburbs of Damascus. Quinlan resisted pressure from other ambassadors to gavel additional meetings of the Security Council, which could easily have turned into Iraq War–style shouting matches. Instead, he tried to lower the temperature, and that proved useful later in the month when Washington and Moscow hatched an improbable deal that led to the dismantlement of Syria’s toxic arsenal.

Emboldened, Quinlan sought to capitalise on this rare moment of Security Council unity on Syria to boost humanitarian aid. At that time, 90% of UN-administered assistance went to areas controlled by the Assad regime. Australia persuaded the council to agree on a presidential statement demanding access to rebel-held areas. Such statements are non-binding and unenforceable, but Quinlan saw this as an important first step and believed that the Security Council could be browbeaten into going further. Working with Luxembourg and Jordan, Australia spent months lobbying for the presidential statement to become a full-blown resolution. In February, their efforts paid off.

For those unschooled in the tortuous politics of the Security Council, authorship of a humanitarian resolution must seem like nothing to write home about. But this was fiendishly hard to push through. The Australian mission had to overcome the usual Russian obstructionism as well as reservations in Washington and Whitehall that pressing Damascus on aid access would complicate political efforts aimed at bringing the Assad regime to the negotiating table.

Because of the boost in humanitarian aid to Syria, Australia will leave behind a meaningful legacy when its two-year tenure on the Security Council ends at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. It is seen in the UN convoys loaded with food and medical supplies rumbling into Syria, and in once-besieged cities where children and women no longer have to eat grass. The humanitarian situation remains dire, but the resolutions have at least ameliorated a measure of suffering.

Quinlan’s team pursued a smart combination of niche and nudge diplomacy: niche in the sense that it identified a key issue, humanitarian aid, where it could make a significant contribution; nudge because it has prodded the big powers into action. “They’ve shown what you can do when you come onto the council with a plan and a bit of oomph,” says Sir Mark Lyall Grant, the UK’s permanent representative. “On Syria, they now get to speak first, and they are the pen holders on Afghanistan.”

The focus on Syria and humanitarianism originated not in Canberra but in the Australian mission on 42nd Street. These efforts have largely gone unnoticed back home. When Tony Abbott addressed the UN’s General Assembly in September, a forum in which world leaders customarily take credit for their country’s successes at the UN, he did not even mention the life-saving efforts of Quinlan and his team. DFAT also prefers its ambassadors to keep a low public profile.

The campaign for humanitarian resolutions partly explains why the story of Australia and the UN has become a tale of two cities. In New York, the Australian mission is viewed as a team of hardworking humanitarians. In Geneva, the home of the UN’s refugee agency and human rights council, the asylum-seeker policies of the Howard, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott governments regularly draw the type of criticism ordinarily meted out to pariah states.

Surprisingly, Australia’s poor human rights record on boat people has not hobbled Quinlan’s work. Even though the New York Times, the parish pump of UN diplomats, has covered the story extensively, and also editorialised against offshore detention centres, only one mission, Finland, has raised the issue.

Far more damaging has been the Abbott government’s environmental record. Much to the dismay of high-ranking UN officials, Abbott missed September’s climate summit, attended by Barack Obama and 120 other heads of government. Instead, he timed his arrival in New York for the following day to attend a Security Council meeting, chaired by the US president, on foreign fighters heading to Iraq and Syria. (Again, the Security Council seat gave Australia a place at the table.)

Shovelling salt into the wound, when Abbott addressed the General Assembly, speaking from the same green marble podium where only 36 hours earlier the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, had strongly argued in favour of pricing carbon, the prime minister cited the abolition of the carbon tax as an example of Australia leading the world by example.

During Abbott’s short visit to the UN, the most eye-catching story came not from his speech but from his early-morning workout with Obama, which inevitably came to be labelled “barbell diplomacy”. But doubtless that morning Gary Quinlan would have been going about his work unobtrusively, lifting way above his weight.

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is the BBC’s New York and United Nations correspondent. He is also the author of The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a great nation lost its way.

@NickBryantNY

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November 2014

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