Peacemaker: Is Australia up to the task?

Why continued apathy to conflicts outside our borders could ultimately come back to haunt us

Professor John Langmore, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

Published 18 April 2016

The world is increasingly at war. Since 2008, the number of active major civil wars has almost tripled from four to 11. It’s a sobering statistic that reverses what had been a declining trend of violent conflict since the end of the Cold War.

When UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon reported these figures, he urged the world to act. There is now more to do than ever and more conflicts on which to work, he said.

The conflict in Syria is just one of several major civil wars currently being fought out in the world. Picture: Shutterstock

What relevance does this have to Australia? Former foreign minister Gareth Evans told a peace workshop in Melbourne in April 2016 that Australia can and should play a bigger role. But to be an effective diplomatic peacemaker, Australia must place importance on its credibility, capacity and motivation.

“The truth is that Australia has ample stocks of both capacity and credibility on which to draw,” he said. “But the extent of our motivation has waxed and waned over the years.”

The need to act is hard to ignore. Civilians are bearing the brunt of these wars, with populations increasingly targeted and often through brutal atrocity crimes involving sexual violence against women and children.

Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres said last year while he was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that there has been a “staggering escalation of forced displacement”.

In 2010, 11,000 people a day were displaced by conflict. By 2014, it was 43,000 people a day.

There are now close to 60 million displaced people in the world, higher than has ever been recorded before.

What this means - Guterres went on to say - is that we live in a world in which the capacity to prevent conflicts and to resolve them in a timely fashion is practically non-existent. Millions would agree with him.

Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says forced displacement has skyrocketed. Picture: Flickr

Australia must take its responsibility for this. It has a huge hole in its security policy. We can plan to spend $34 billion a year on defence and to increase it every year, but still spend next to nothing on conflict resolution. We even spend less on diplomatic preventative action than any other G20 country by having the smallest number of overseas diplomats.

On 28 September last year, Australia joined with every other UN member state in the UN General Assembly in adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

All members accepted responsibility for promoting peace and inclusive societies for sustainable development. The first of the targets under this goal is to ‘significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere’. Australia shares in this global commitment.

The UN is also actively addressing how to do this. During 2015, three reports on peace and security were completed and published: the UN peace operations review; the review of the UN Peace-building Architecture; and the review of the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.

These reviews all acknowledge that the changing dynamic of conflict requires the evolution of peace-making tools.

Tragically, Australia has barely noticed these reports. Why? They weren’t reported in the media (no Australian media outlet has a correspondent at the UN in New York).

Acting as peacemaker and helping to solve conflicts overseas is key to Australia’s own security, John Langmore argues. Picture: Flickr

Perhaps it is partly because those of us who are concerned don’t try hard enough to get coverage.

And perhaps it is because Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop takes little notice of them and doesn’t talk about them.

The latest Defence White Paper acknowledges that Australia’s security and prosperity relies on a stable, rules-based global order which supports the peaceful resolution of disputes.

But other than mentioning the value of trade, this insular, superficial report has nothing to say about how to contribute to peaceful conflict resolution.

The idea that massively increasing Australian military spending might motivate other countries to increase their military spending caused the writers no concern. Even peace-keeping is only cursorily mentioned.

It is therefore imperative for scholars and civil society to swiftly address these issues.

We’re running a conflict resolution project at the University of Melbourne that wants to make a comprehensive post-Cold War review of Australian responses (or lack thereof) to overseas conflict.

Do we have government capacity to undertake peacemaking activities, particularly in Asia and the Pacific? Does peacemaking fit well with ‘middle power diplomacy’? These are questions the project will address.

An immediate task, commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is to prepare a basis for evolution through a survey of peacemaking activities of other comparable countries.

Meanwhile, we all need to make conflict resolution part of our daily conversations for the betterment of our own society. After all, these activities are the most cost-effective and constructive means of strengthening Australian security.

Banner Image: Martine Perret/United Nations

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