Australia and United Nations – Dissertation Sample

Australia professes to be a supporter of the United Nations

This essay will discuss the merits of the Australian profession of support for the United Nations and whether these merits have been increased or decreased due to the foreign policies of the John Howard government.  In particular this essay will concentrate on the issues surrounding the Howard’s government involvement in the Anglo-American led invasion of Iraq and if that can be regarded as support for or detraction from Australia’s support of the United Nations.

John Howard became Prime Minister in 1996 after his coalition ended its fourteen- year spell in opposition. Although his own previous government experience had been as treasurer he was interested in foreign policy. John Howard also had an ability to understand Australian voters even if he did not have the charisma of the former Labor Prime Ministers Bob Hawke or Paul Keating.

Australian governments after 1945 tended to stress their support of the United Nations and their close military, economic and political links with the United States. However sticking to both strategies may be seen as leading Australia in contradictory directions.  Australia was a founding member of the United Nations and its governments were publicly committed to support the organisation (the present government is no exception). Australia took part in the United Nations forces that fought in the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 alongside the United States and Britain.  In 1951 Australia signed the Australia, New Zealand and United States (ANZUS) treaty with the United States and New Zealand that increased military, economic and political links with the United States.  Australia went on to become a founding member of the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) in 1954 showing its support for collective security and anti-communism.

Australian governments were therefore used to acting multilaterally when trying to carry out their foreign policies by it as part of regional organisations or through the United Nations.   Australian forces were involved in the Vietnam War under the terms of the ANZUS agreement.  In 1990 Australia again joined the United Nations backed forces in fighting in the Persian Gulf war that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991.  The United States led coalition on that occasion could say it was enforcing 12 United Nations resolutions and upholding international law whilst fighting a just war.  The United Nations despite that apparent success remained only as strong as its member states or specifically the Security Council members wished it to be. 

Prior to the John Howard government involvement in the ‘war on terror’ and the invasion of Iraq, Australian foreign policies had tended towards peacekeeping and humanitarian aid roles. Australian governments could thus profess to support the United Nations as one of its most powerful committed if not powerful member states. Although lacking a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council they were closely aligned with Britain and the United States, two countries that does have such seats. It is the five permanent members that can veto or threaten to veto resolutions. United Nations resolutions are not always easy to pass, which can pose a problem for members that, would prefer their actions to be carried out under the United Nations banner.  The John Howard government did intervene to end the violence in East Timor under the auspices of the United Nations in 1999.

East Timor had been invaded by Indonesia in 1975 when the United States and Australia or the United Nations were unwilling to intervene. However, the violence against East Timor and the possible humanitarian crisis prompted the John Howard government to take action.  John Howard justified intervention in East Timor as it meant that United Nations Security Council resolution 1264 would be carried out. President Clinton had ensured the adoption of that resolution by soothing Chinese fears that aside from East Timor the make up of Indonesia would be left alone. John Howard played up the humanitarian reason for Australian intervention although some critics believed that his government was after the oil and gas resources that East Timor had. 

The John Howard government may have felt some cultural affinity for the people of East Timor as the majority of them are Roman Catholics and many Australians would still regard themselves as being Christians (nominally at least). Indonesia is predominantly Muslim and the religious differences added to the complexity of the situation. President Clinton was glad that ‘John Howard was willing to take the lead.’  

The John Howard government foreign policies were changed as a result of the September 11th 2001 attacks on the United States. John Howard was keen to align closely with the Bush administration’s ‘war on terror’ (by a twist of fate John Howard was in Washington on September 11 2001 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ANZUS treaty).   Alongside Britain Australia would prove to be the United States staunchest ally for the price of jeopardising its professed support for the United Nations. For the United States its first target after the September 11th attacks would be the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that provided Al-Qaeda with bases. The Taliban’s links with terrorism in general and Al-Qaeda in particular were undeniable. Australia did not play a major part in the rapid United States led victory in Afghanistan that removed the Taliban regime and weakened Al-Qaeda. 

John Howard’s response to the September 11th attacks were widely seen as contributing to this third general election victory in November 2001. Some commentators even dubbed it a ‘khaki election’.  The Bush administration’s next target in its war on terrorism would prove more controversial for the John Howard government to support the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Bush wished to topple Saddam Hussein from power and believed that could be justified as a pre-emptive strike against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Unlike 1990 there was no widespread international support for war against Iraq and no guarantee that the United Nations Security Council would pass a resolution or resolutions that would authorise military action. 

The John Howard government hoped that the United Nations would pass the required resolutions so that it did not have to choose between joining the war against Iraq or not defying the United Nations Security Council and fighting in Iraq. However the government was prepared to participate in the war if it had to.  John Howard stressed in his speech to the nation on March 13 2003 the following reasons for involvement in Iraq and the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
“Not only is it inherently dangerous for a country such as Iraq with its appalling track record to have these weapons but if Iraq is allowed to get away with it other rogue States will believe they can do the same because they will have seen a world stand by and allow it to happen.”

In other words the Australian government believed that not appeasing terrorists or rogue States is a better way of supporting the United Nations than carrying out its resolutions.

John Howard seemed to have no doubts about the legality of war against Iraq. As far as he was concerned it was time to remove Saddam Hussein by force as United Nations sanctions and weapons inspections had failed to either remove or force the Iraqi regime to submit to United Nations resolutions.  The Australian government like its American and British counterparts saw the removal of Saddam Hussein as more important than spending too much longer attempting to gain concessions from the Iraqi regime or have virtually meaningless resolutions passed by the Security Council.

In the end the United States only managed to get one resolution through the Security Council although the Australian and British governments had hoped for a further resolution that explicitly endorsed military action against Iraq. That second resolution was not put to the Security Council, as it became increasingly likely that France would veto it with Russia and China also opposed to military action. The Australian government argued that the first Security Council resolution and proceeded to send its forces to join the invasion of Iraq even though many members of the United Nations doubted the legality of war. President Chirac’s threat of the veto may have gone down well with anti-war activists everywhere but it just meant that the coalition went ahead with the war without the United Nations 

 The Labor party was against Australia being involved in the war against Iraq and opposed the war altogether. The Labor party leader Simon Crean pointed out that it was the first time that Australia had started a war as an aggressor nation.  John Howard had not even been involved in the decision to invade Iraq. That decision had been made by the Americans, the British and the Spanish and agreed to by John Howard at a later stage. After John Howard had given up independence to make up its own decisions over the war, 2,000 Australian military personnel were sent to fight in that war.  Crean went on to accuse John Howard of misleading the Australian public over the United Nations resolution 1441 as it did authorise the use of force.    

Before the United States led coalition had a chance to invade Iraq; the reality of the Al-Qaeda threat was brought uncomfortably close to home for many Australians. In October 2002 a group linked to Al-Qaeda set off a bomb in the Indonesian resort of Bali that killed 202.  Of those victims 88 were Australian tourists and holiday -makers. The attack shocked Australia yet offered the John Howard government the opportunity of better co-operation with Australia’s neighbours. The South West Pacific Dialogue consists of meetings between the foreign ministers of Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, New Zealand, East Timor and Papua New Guinea. John Howard warned that although Australia wished to have good relationships with these countries that his government was prepared to strike against any groups or individuals planning future attacks on Australia or Australian targets. To its critics the Australian government seemed to prefer the pre-emptive strike doctrine favoured by the Bush administration to supporting the United Nations.

Critics also pointed out that Australia’s best interest was served by maintaining strong links with the South West Pacific Dialogue plus China and Japan. They argued that supporting the United States invasion of Iraq was morally wrong and was contrary to Australia being a supporter of the United Nations. Australian anti-war protesters were more likely to reduce their opposition to the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime than their counterparts in other countries. This was particularly so after the discovery of mass graves of the victims of the Iraqi regime. Perhaps the John Howard government could have had a wider support for the war if it had stressed the need to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein rather than stress the threat of WMD and terrorism.   

The Australian government has realised the value of multilateral co-operation in countering terrorism although it not seem to believe that the campaign in Iraq was increasing the terrorism problem rather than decreasing the problem. The John Howard government sees as already mentioned above co-operation with its regional partners as the most effective means of countering the terrorist threat to its internal and external security. Or to quote Alexander Downer, the secretary for foreign affairs; “ The unprecedented co-operation between Australia and Indonesia in bringing to justice the perpetrators of the Bali bombings highlights the value of these arrangements.”  

Australian anti-war campaigners were opposed to their government getting involved in the invasion of Iraq for various reasons. Firstly they did not see the removal of Saddam Hussein, as been a part of the war on terror let alone vital for its success but rather as an aggressive, imperial act by the United States.  They did not believe that Australia should join in such a war. The Hawks in the United States government such as President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld certainly viewed such a war as a means of demonstrating American power as combating terrorism.   Opponents to John Howard involving Australia in the war against Iraq argued that the war was illegal and was conducted without the full unequivocal backing of the United Nations. 

Australian anti-war campaigners pointed out that the WMD that Saddam Hussein was supposed to have ready for use did not actually exist and that Iraq did not have any links to Al-Qaeda. Since the invasion of Iraq, Al-Qaeda has been active in the country organising operations against the United States led coalition forces and the new Iraqi regime. It now seems that no WMD will be found in Iraq, meaning that the United States, British and Australian governments based their decision to attack on poor intelligence or used it as an excuse for aggression. Iraqi links to Al-Qaeda had been established after the US led invasion.

An area in which the John Howard government has changed it foreign policies in a way that undermines Australia’s professed support for the United Nations was over immigration policy. Prior to John Howard gaining power Australia had professed its support for the United Nations by allowing refugees in to Australia. Since 1996 the John Howard government has restricted the entry of non-white immigrants and refugees in Australia. The government restrictions on asylum seekers would add to its popularity in the 2001 general election even if it offended liberal opinion.  The Labour party despite public comments did very little to stop these restrictions on asylum seekers and non-white immigrants. The more cynical of the governments opponents argued that although at face value the intervention in East Timor showed Australia supported the United Nations, that intervention also prevented large numbers of refugees leaving East Timor and later wishing to enter Australia. 

John Howard demonstrated his government’s hard line on immigration in August 2001 when 500 asylum seekers on the ship Tampa were refused entry and even first aid. He eventually ordered the Australian SAS to seize the ship off the Australian territory of Christmas Island. John Howard was not concerned by the domestic and foreign condemnation of such a flagrant breach of maritime law. Asylum seekers were also sent from Australian camps to some of the poorest and smallest islands in the Pacific such as Nauru. The United Nations would condemn the Australian detention camps as bleak and managed to get its Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson to visit them despite the Australian government’s objections.

Therefore in many respects the John Howard government’s foreign policies have moved away from Australia’s professed support for the United Nations. Australia had supported the United Nations for instance during the Korean War and the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. On closer inspection these actions although under the auspices of the United Nations were in reality led by the United States. Relevant resolutions had been passed through the United Nations Security Council due to either the absence or the weakness of the Soviet Union. Australian governments had stressed their support for the United Nations by their involvement in peace keeping, humanitarian relief and providing asylum to refugees. 

Whilst the Australian intervention in East Timor was portrayed by the government as fully supporting the United Nations in peacekeeping and humanitarian relief it also showed the unwillingness of the government to accept or provide for asylum seekers. The government was determined to find a pacifist solution to the problem of finding places for asylum seekers, to put it bluntly to pay other countries to take in refugees rather than have them in Australia itself. The events in 2001 surrounding the 500 refugees on the ship Tampa and the Australian government’s actions to prevent them claiming asylum on Christmas Island showed that John Howard was prepared to be ruthless and break international law to maintain a tough stance on asylum seekers.

The attacks of September 11th 2001 on the United States led to direct changes in the John Howard government’s foreign policies that could be viewed as contradictory to Australian support for the United Nations yet showed its loyalty and friendship to the United States. Perhaps John Howard may have served Australia’s national interests better if he had urged caution on the Bush administration, yet it would have paid to heed such caution. Joining the war against Iraq could be seen as going against the United Nations rather than supporting it. The Australian government proved more than willing to go against the wishes of many of the United Nations member states in backing the United States use of force. Whether the case for war was legal is debatable. That Australia went against the wishes of many of its people and many other nations is indisputable. See also different essay types at


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