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President for a month:

Australia assumes the Presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of September - and there's some big issues at stake.
By Bonita Mersiades
Date: September 03 2013
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While a relatively very fortunate Australian nation ponders which of the two major parties should form government from next Saturday, there are real tragedies happening half-a-world away.

Why does it matter? Putting aside that we should care about all people around the world, regardless of their race, culture, ethnicity, gender or religion, there’s also an international political reason.

It’s called the UN Security Council and, as of last Sunday, we’re the chair of the Council for September as the world continues to face an increasing, and apparently unending, crisis in Syria.

Every day, there are more innocent victims of the Syria’s civil war. The Head of Humanitarian for Save the Children Australia, Stephen McDonald says more than 7,000 children have been killed and more are at risk.

“This has now become the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation,” he says.

“After almost three years of conflict, the toll on Syrian children has been enormous – their homes and schools have been attacked, they have been severely injured, traumatised and forced to flee in terror.

“As President of the UN Security Council, Australia must not avert its gaze from the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding for children in Syria and across the region.”

Presidency of the UN Security Council means that Australia chairs meetings of the Council and sets its agenda – no doubt one of the reasons why the former diplomat Prime Minister Rudd probably would have preferred to set the election date in October.

Towards the end of September, Presidents and Prime Ministers from around the world traditionally gather in New York at UN headquarters for UN Leaders’ week.

But even before then, the man who is elected Prime Minister on Saturday will also chair a high-level meeting on small arms that has been brokered by Australia in what is seen as a significant accomplishment of the Government, Foreign Minister Bob Carr, and Australia’s Ambassador to the UN Gary Quinlan.

If Labor is returned to Government on Saturday, Mr Rudd can be expected to assertively push Australia’s time in the spotlight and promote action to protect innocent civilians, including children, in Syria. He has already said he would make a Presidential Statement on Syria in September if he is re-elected.

However, in all probability, Australia will be represented by Tony Abbott who told the National Press Club yesterday that he is more interested in Jakarta than Geneva - that is, regional issues rather than world issues - and trade over aid. He said he prefers a “cautious response” on Syria and will follow the lead of the United States.

The Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, and putative Foreign Minister if the Coalition wins on Saturday Julie Bishop, said she would use the Security Council membership to focus attention on preventing failed states in the Pacific region.

But regardless of Mr Abbott’s and Ms Bishop’s preferences, they will have to engage in the global crises of the day. If they turn up at 1 United Nations Plaza, New York, at the end of the month and try to talk about Fiji, the Solomon Islands and boats rather than Syria, Egypt and Afghanistan, they will not only demean the value of the people whose lives continue to be torn apart but also look out-of-touch with global priorities.

However, the benefit for Mr Abbott and Ms Bishop, assuming they win, is that they will gain instant credibility and gravitas at home by rubbing shoulders with world leaders. The person they would most have to thank for doing so is none other than Kevin Rudd, who was the key proponent of Australia being elected to the Security Council in the first place.

Stephen McDonald says Save the Children is working inside Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt and is scaling-up its response in anticipation of a potentially massive influx of refugees ahead of any possible escalation in conflict. They have already supported more than 600,000 children and families in Syria and the region delivering life-saving medical care, food, education, shelter and protection. The Australian Government has committed $100 million in humanitarian aid.

* * *

You can make a donation to the Save the Children Fund for Syria here.

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