On a mission ...Julia Gillard will continue to lobby for a seat on the UN security council until voting day.

If Australia fails to gain a seat on the UN Security Council, the Gillard government's substantial efforts will not have been in vain. Photo: AFP

By this time tomorrow Australia could have a seat at the most powerful table at the United Nations.

The countries of the world will sit down to vote overnight on who will become the newest non-permanent members of the Security Council.

If Australia comes out a winner, it has the chance to play a key role in preventing conflict around the world, including in places where Australians are working directly on the ground, such as Afghanistan and Timor-Leste.

But Australia will need to hit the ground running. As a newly elected non-permanent member, it would be on the Council for just a short two years. It needs a clear vision and a proactive agenda to make a real difference.

During its two-year term, Australia would serve as Security Council president at least once, possibly twice. These will be strategic moments for Australia to set the Council's agenda. Without a clear plan, these opportunities will pass us by.

Australia must identify a small number of core issues that it can consistently push throughout the Council's work. These should be areas where there is a clear need for enhanced leadership and new thinking, and where Australia has sufficient expertise and credibility to drive the agenda.

One core priority for Australia should be ensuring better protection of civilians in armed conflict. In recent years the Council has increased its commitment to respond to conflicts where civilians are being targeted. Yet, in practice, its track record remains uneven, as the tragic situation in Syria highlights.

Australia has significant experience in this area of work. We have helped develop training and guidelines to better equip UN and African Union peacekeepers to protect civilians. Australia is also a vital and highly regarded contributor to peacekeeping operations in places such as Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands.

Australia could actively push the Security Council to respond more consistently in situations where civilians are threatened, and use its first Security Council presidency to secure a resolution focused on overcoming key challenges to better protecting civilians.

A second focus should be to prevent the global spread of conventional arms – guns, grenades, military vehicles – and the impact they have on civilians. Every day, thousands of people are killed and injured, others are raped, forced to flee their homes and live under constant threat of weapons.

Australia is a well-respected advocate for disarmament, and has played a leading role in ongoing negotiations for the world's first ever international Arms Trade Treaty to prevent arms from ending up in the hands of human-rights abusers and repressive regimes. Foreign Minister Bob Carr's recent commitments to use an Australian seat on the UN Security Council to push harder for the successful negotiation of the Arms Trade Treaty are to be applauded.

If Australia is not successful in gaining non-permanent member status, with the seats going instead to Finland and Luxembourg, the government's substantial efforts will not have been in vain. Australia's increased participation in UN processes, its engagement with regional bodies such as the African Union and the Caribbean Community and increased diplomatic presence in regions affected by war and conflict during recent years have benefits that extend far beyond winning a Council seat.

These investments have increased Australia's influence in key international peace and security forums and debates, as well as enhanced Australia's international standing. Prime Minister Julia Gillard's recent appointment as co-chair of the UN Secretary General's Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group is just one sign that Australia's growing role in international affairs is being taken seriously. And so it should be.

While a loss would be disappointing for the government, it presents an opportunity to reflect on Australia's standing in the world, and where we need to strengthen our foreign policy credentials to be better equipped to join the UN Security Council in future. The real failure would be if Australia, as a result of the loss, turned its back on all the progress it has made in the international arena in recent years.

Rather, a sustained and bipartisan Australian commitment to multilateralism – embracing an international approach in finding solutions to the world's most pressing problems – will build Australia's credibility and standing in world affairs in the long term. Regardless of whether Australia wins a seat on the UN Security Council, it is imperative that this investment continues.

Andrew Hewett is Oxfam Australia's executive director.

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