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National Observer Home > No. 44 - Autumn 2000 > Articles

The Use of the United Nations Powers Against Australia

Dr. I.C.F. Spry Q.C.

A Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade of the Australian Parliament is to inquire into and report on the role of the United Nations and Australias relationship with the organisation in the post Cold War environment. It is therefore particularly apposite to discuss now some of the implications for Australia of the powers of the United Nations.

The Current International Environment

Although it may be apt in some contexts to refer to a post Cold War environment, it is too early to be confident that threats from communist totalitarian countries have ceased permanently. Communist China remains highly aggressive, and it should not be forgotten that over the past fifty years its communist leaders have been responsible for what are commonly estimated to be sixty million deaths. Communist China has been repeating in aggressive language its claims to Taiwan and in relation to the South China Sea, and it has also been repeating its threats to use force: see generally Chinas Asia-Pacific Ambitions, National Observer, Summer 2000.

Further, although there has been a substantial breaking-up of the U.S.S.R., the future direction of Russian policy is by no means clear. It may be hoped that liberalisation and the actual enjoyment of democratic institutions will increase, but it should not be forgotten that Pulin, the present head of state, has a communist history which included a long term of employment as a K.G.B. agent and that many other Russian leaders have communist backgrounds.

For Australia, it is now highly probable that China will present greater difficulties than Russia, and it would be irresponsible to favour the departure of United States forces from the Pacific whilst China maintains an aggressive position towards other countries in the region.

The Composition of the United Nations

Overwhelmingly, the United Nations comprises a vast preponderance of non-Western countries. (The term Western includes here European countries, the United States and Canada, and Australia and several other countries with similar cultures.)

It is also true that Australia has very few friends in the United Nations. By friends in this context is meant countries sympathetic generally to Australia who might usually be expected to support Australias interests.

This general statement may be supported by an analysis of relevant countries and groups.

The United States is nominally an ally of Australia. However, with the falling apart of the U.S.S.R., the United States foreign policy has become more directed than previously towards trade and economic matters. More and more, Australia and the United States are competing in many fields. Further, the United States has shown itself to be ruthless in advancing its own trade. There has been a U.S.-influenced campaign by international bodies (such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which are in many respects mere American proxies) to break down trade barriers so as to benefit United States exporters. To what extent, indeed, can the United States now be regarded as a friend of Australia, when its policies are directed largely to benefiting itself financially to Australias detriment?

Nor can the United Kingdom be regarded as more reliable. It is some time now since the United Kingdom joined the Common Market, to the detriment of Australia and other Commonwealth countries. Since that time the United Kingdom has been drawn gradually but increasingly into a European vortex. Although certain sentimental ties remain between England and Australia, and the English monarchy represents a stabilising influence under the Australian constitution, the United Kingdom has long been diminishing in importance as a world power, and it would be unrealistic to expect any support that Australia might receive from it in the United Nations to carry general weight.

Other European countries may be expected to have little sympathy with Australia, and indeed from France there will probably be a continuation of unfriendliness towards countries of anglo-saxon origins.

The countries that are often referred to conveniently as the third world may be expected to be unpredictable in particular cases but generally unsympathetic to Australia, save to the extent that their support can from time to time be obtained on discrete issues through financial support or particular exercises of diplomatic skill. Amongst many African countries, for example, there is particular animus against white countries, and it is quite unforeseeable how the various South and Central American and Asian countries will react towards Australia.

Whilst of course much will depend on the particular issue in question, it may be that Australia will find itself with little support and much hostility if matters affecting Australia arise in the United Nations.

The foregoing is an analysis based on fact rather than sentimentality. It is the duty of the Australian Parliament to protect Australias interests, and not to detract from those interests where to assist an international or other body would be to do so.

Peacekeeping and United Nations Military Operations

United Nations peacekeeping and other military operations present considerable difficulties for Australia. On the one hand, most Australians are sympathetic to some attempts to protect other countries or groups within other countries from unconscionable military or quasi-military operations. On the other hand, peace-keeping and other military operations carry various problems for Australia.

1. By participating in particular operations, Australia may incur hostility. Thus bad-feeling has recently been created in Indonesia against Australia by reason of the East Timor operation. It would be unwise to under-rate that bad-feeling, which will be a factor for many years.

2. The costs of operations are generally extremely substantial. These costs, such as were recently incurred in regard to East Timor, have produced disagreements within Australia. In particular many Australians believe that they should not have been incurred, at least to the extent of the extraordinary large amounts that have been involved.

3. Australias defence forces have been shown by the East Timor operation to be inadequate. Australia was unable to provide or sustain a force as expected, and it was necessary to obtain assistance from the United States and other resources in order to have effective operations.

4. The actual merits of U.N. operations are often a matter of controversy. Recent intercessions in Bosnia are regarded by a number of countries as having been carried out ineptly and as advantaging unduly Bosnian Moslems as against Serbs. The more the United Nations authorizes military expeditions and the consequential interference in the affairs of particular countries, the greater will be the extent of controversy.

5. There is a possibility that United Nations resources will be deployed against Australia. This matter is discussed hereunder.

The United Nations against Australia

Questions of the desirability or undesirability of United Nations peacekeeping and military operations have, unfortunately, often been discussed without reflecting that these operations may in due course be used against Australia.

The following possible scenarios amongst others require consideration.

(1) Indonesia asserts claims to Papua-New Guinea.

Indonesia has proved to be highly unpredictable both in regard to its internal affairs and in regard to other ex-colonies or other countries to which it may assert claims. If in the future Indonesia asserts claims to Papua-New Guinea, or if for any other reason Papua-New Guinea becomes involved in external or internal conflicts, the United Nations will take an interest. Whether, for example, Indonesia or some other country or group would be favoured would depend entirely on voting patterns in the United Kingdom, and particularly in the Security Council. It is certainly possible that Indonesia rather than Australia would be supported.

(2) Dishonest Aboriginal claims are made for the purpose of procuring United Nations interference.

The Commonwealth Government has already expressed concern at misleading and inaccurate statements made by aboriginal groups to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Unfortunately, there is a possibility that irresponsible Aboriginal groups will continue to make such statements. If for example, an Aboriginal association purported to declare part of North Australia as an independent Aboriginal State - a course which is being favoured by some more extreme elements - and sought support from the United Nations, what would be the result? Certainly it could not be assumed that the United Nations, with its curiously diverse composition, would support the Commonwealth Government in treating the declaration as void. There is a possibility that third world countries, and even some Western countries, would support the purported Aboriginal State, and that they would support Òpeace-keepingÓ or other material assistance to that purported state.

Quite simply, it is uncertain what steps the United Nations would take. But it is clear that one of those that it might consider would be an interference with AustraliaÕs sovereignty, either through military or quasi-military operations or through sanctions or other means.

(3) Claims are made to Australian land.

A general perception is that Australia is under-populated. If at a particular time the Australian population is 20 million, that of Indonesia 220 million and that of China or India 1200 million, it is by no means impossible that a claim will be made in the United Nations that Australia should accept, say, an additional 20 million or 50 million from crowded countries or that it should cede part of Northern Australia to countries which would settle there immigrants of these or greater numbers. How would this matter be dealt with by the United Nations? What would happen if, for example, a resolution of the General Assembly were followed by the landing in northern Australia of large numbers of persons taking occupation of the relevant parts? If the Australian Government were to oppose this landing by its military forces, which would doubtless be hoped for and expected by the majority of the Australian people, and the countries favouring the invasion were to appeal to the United Nations, what would be the result? Unfortunately, it is highly probable that Australia would not receive support, and there is clearly a possibility that the United Nations might, under the rubric of peace-keeping or otherwise, favour those involved in the incursion or invasion.

It may, of course, be argued that these and similar scenarios are unlikely. But it is foolish to rely complacently on particular predictions of the future. The three scenarios that have been set out here are merely examples of many scenarios in which there is a possibility that United NationsÕ peace-keeping or other military operations may be applied against Australia.

A United Nations Standing Army?

By definition, the role of any United Nations standing army must be to interfere, or threaten to do so, in the internal affairs of countries.

If a United Nations standing army were set up, it would almost certainly be applied in some situations: that is, it would be used for military including combat purposes. But further, the very fact of its existence would be of cardinal importance in pressuring countries to accept or comply with decisions of the General Assembly or of the Security Council. Where there is a force, that force does not need to be actually deployed in order to be powerful. Its very existence is in terrorem.

So far as Australia is concerned, the dangers of a standing army would immeasurably out-weigh its benefits. There are some circumstances in which interference by a U.N. standing army would benefit Australia directly, but those circumstances are few, and are essentially limited to possible invasions of Australia by countries which happen not to be favoured by the majority of the members of the United Nations (where in any event, support of Australia by the United States would be of greater significance). But there are many more circumstances in which interference by a U.N. standing army, or the threat of its deployment, would be against Australias interests.

It would be naive to believe that Australia, a Western and sparsely-populated nation near South-east Asia, is more likely to be the recipient of United Nations favour than disfavour.

A United Nations or International Criminal Court?

The Australian criminal court system is one of the most highly regarded in the world. There is no doubt that the quality of Australian criminal law judges is very high, and the administration of the criminal law in Australia is far superior to that in almost any other country.

In these circumstances, why support an international criminal court? Any such court would have two probable functions.

First, it could act as an appeal court in regard to national criminal proceedings. On this basis a person convicted of an offence by an Australian court could appeal to a body of (presently understood) indeterminate composition and have his conviction overturned by reference to principles not part of Australian law. It is hard to see advantages in this position, and it is very easy to see disadvantages.

Secondly, it could act as a court of original jurisdiction which would inter alia hear charges against Australian nationals not otherwise involved in criminal proceedings. This course is one that would carry considerable dangers. The relevant alleged crime might not be one recognised by Australian law. Even if the crime were recognised by Australian law, the court would comprise members from various foreign jurisdictions. These members would almost certainly be of extremely variable quality, and also they would be likely to comprise persons with varying political views and objectives. Australian nationals would be able to be arraigned and removed from Australia to be exposed to a very uncertain form of justice.

For these and related reasons the institution of an international criminal court (whether or not under the auspices of the United Nations) should be strongly opposed. This opposition should not be lessened by assurances that any such court would have limited powers or would follow particular procedures, because there could be no guarantee that this would be the case.

The Structure and Financial Arrangements of the United Nations

In view of the foregoing, as a general principle the Australian Government should not undertake any initiatives directed at increasing the powers of the United Nations or improving its financial arrangements.

The United Nations commands already very wide powers. As has been shown here, there is a prospect that in the future these powers may be exercised against Australias interests.

Therefore any changes sought or approved by Australia in structural or financial respects should have as their primary purpose the restriction of United Nations powers and operations so as to protect Australia from interference.

The Australian Government has as its first and paramount duty its obligations to, and the protection of, the Australian people. Well-meaning internationalists are apt to lose sight of this principle, and are often so anxious to embroil themselves in perceived improvements to international mechanisms that they are prepared to neglect the primary consideration, that is, the welfare of Australian citizens.

Particular caution must be expressed in regard to those Australian politicians of both main parties who for personal advancement have been drawn to treading the world stage and involving themselves in international institutions and concerns. Whatever their personal motivations may have been, it is very clear that in some cases they have been content to disregard the interests of Australia by pursuing foreign objectives.

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs

The Joint Standing Committee is a committee of the Parliament of Australia, and, like the Parliament, its primary and over-riding duty is to Australia, and the Australian nation.

Any recommendation made by it should be made carefully in accordance with this overriding duty, and not in accordance with internationalist objectives that are calculated to lead to possible detriment to Australia.

One of the purposes of this article is to show that even with its existing powers the United Nations is able to act effectively to the detriment of Australia. Whether it will do so will depend from time to time upon decisions made by groups which have no loyalties or obligations to Australia, and which in many cases have grounds of hostility towards Australia and reasons not to act in the interests of Australia.

Therefore, far from advising the advancement of United Nations powers so that they are capable of being exercised more extensively against the interests of Australia, any report by the Sub-Committee or by the Joint Stand-ing Committee should be directed at protecting Australian sovereignty and ensuring that United Nations powers are limited so as to be unable to be exercised to the detriment of Australia or of Australian nationals.

National Observer No. 44 - Autumn 2000