Denis Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist based in New York covering the UN.
Australia, which presided over the first-ever meeting of the UN Security Council in January 1946 (see photo, courtesy of the UN), will take the reins of the 15-nation body for the ninth time next month as the crisis in Syria nears tipping point.
But Ambassador Gary Quinlan will rule over a deadlocked council, and while Australia will reportedly seek to use its presidency to push for a solution to the Syrian crisis, in reality, the mantle of presidency brings with it little power to influence Council actions.
The president represents the Council, and Ambassador Quinlan will be expected to brief reporters outside the Security Council chambers several times weekly during the month. The president also sets the daily agenda of the Council, and this is one area where Australia may have some leeway. For example, if another Council member seeks an urgent meeting it is up to the president to call that meeting.
Russia and China have vetoed three previous draft resolutions, the last in July 2012, that would have imposed tough measures against the Assad regime. Non-permanent members Azerbaijan and Pakistan also abstained on the July 2012 vote. With speculation mounting that the US is preparing to strike Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that 'the use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council is a very grave violation of international law'.
A fourth attempt by the P3 (Britain, France and the US) to seek Council approval for action against Assad is all but assured to fail.
Russia, aside from its military and diplomatic support of Assad, also maintains that the doctrine of responsibility to protect was used as a pretext for regime change in Libya, while China's mantra is that Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected.
Just last week Moscow blocked a Council statement calling for UN inspectors in Syria to probe the alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb that is reported to have killed hundreds of civilians. Instead, this month's president, Argentina's Ambassador Cristina Perceval, told reporters after a closed-door meeting that 'there is a strong concern among council members about the allegations and a general sense that there must be clarity on what happened and the situation must be followed closely.'
Australia's presidency also falls during the most important month of the UN diplomatic calendar, with the UN General Assembly's General Debate taking place from 24 September to 1 October, an event which usually attracts a high number of world leaders. It's likely that Australia will schedule a Security Council debate during that week to ensure participation at the highest level.
States presiding over the Council choose a theme rather than a country for their high-level debate. When the US presided over the Council in September 2009, it chose nuclear non-proliferation as the theme, and Barack Obama became the first US president to ever chair a Security Council debate. It's not known yet what theme Australia will choose, although Prime Minister Rudd said back in June that the role of women in post-conflict and fragile states would be a focus of the presidency.
Australia could also choose to schedule the regular monthly Middle East Security Council meeting during the General Debate week, when US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov are expected in New York. The monthly Middle East meeting is open to all UN member states and Australia might view scheduling it during the General Debate as an opportunity for foreign ministers from other concerned states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran to sit at the same table.
Aside from the crisis in Syria, Ambassador Quinlan and his team in New York (Australia's mission is staffed by more than 30 diplomats, one of the largest delegations outside the permanent five countries) look set for a busy month. The Council is expected to debate reports by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on UN missions in Afghanistan, Haiti, Libya, Mali, Sudan and Yemen. And in his capacity as chair of the Iran Sanctions Committee, Ambassador Quinlan is due to provide his quarterly report to the Council.
The last time Australia presided over the Security Council was in November 1985. Then too, the Council was divided and a resolution calling for sanctions against South Africa over its occupation of Namibia was defeated by a double veto from Britain and the US, while France abstained.
After the vote, Ambassador Richard Woolcott told the Council that Australia had worked with others to produce a text that would have sent 'a clear unambiguous signal to South Africa' and regretted 'that it was not possible to achieve it this time.'
Ambassador Quinlan may well find himself echoing those words with regard to Syria should a vote take place under Australia's presidency this time around.