- MH17 tragedy: Full coverage
- Rebels agree to transport bodies and release black boxes
- Australia takes a hard line on Russia
New York: The United Nations Security Council meets in a beautiful hall that was a gift to the world from the people of Norway when the organisation’s headquarters were built in New York after the dead of World War II were buried.
Since then it has often been a shrine to good intentions, a chamber in which plain language and firm resolve is mangled or obliterated by compromise and interference.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop at the United Nations Security Council meeting. Photo: AFP
Not on Monday.
When Security Council members, with representatives of nations whose citizens were murdered aboard flight MH17 last week, gathered to pass unanimously an Australian resolution condemning the downing of the flight and demanding immediate access to the site of the atrocity, the dignified repatriation of the remains of the victims and an independent international investigation, the language used was powerful, angry and bitterly sad.
That the resolution survived Russia’s power of veto with its language and intent largely intact was the result of a smart and astonishingly fast diplomatic effort led by Australia.
Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans speaks during the meeting. Photo: AFP
When the Security Council vote was held just after 3pm on Monday, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop had been in the country for just a day. After arriving in Washington on Sunday, Ms Bishop had travelled straight to ambassador Kim Beazley’s residence in the city’s leafy north-western suburbs. There they sat down with CIA director John Brennan and some of his staff and James Clapper, US President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence.
After the meeting Ms Bishop held a quick press conference in the entrance hall at the residence. The impact of the briefings was apparent. Ms Bishop’s cool reserve was intact, but seemed tempered by real anger.
Earlier in the day US Secretary of State John Kerry had revealed in TV interviews that bodies at the crash site had been moved by drunken separatists. There were reports of looting. Evidence was being tampered with.
A shrine at the crash site of MH17 in eastern Ukraine. Photo: Reuters
Armed with the briefings, Ms Bishop and her team left the residence and took the 3½-hour train trip to New York.
For reasons of both politics and tragic circumstance, Australia is well placed to take the lead in the talks. With 37 of its citizens or residents killed, Australia’s interest is significant, but it is distant enough from European and transatlantic geopolitics to act as an honest broker between Ukraine, Russia and the US.
It is a member of the Security Council, unlike the Netherlands, which has lost almost 200 citizens, and Malaysia, whose aircraft has been shot out over the sky, and Ukraine, in whose airspace the crime has been committed.
Members of the security council, including Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin, centre, vote in favour of the resolution. Photo: AP
Australia’s UN ambassador Gary Quinlan had been crucial to Australia’s effort to secure the Security Council seat. In his book on his time as foreign affairs minister, Bob Carr describes Mr Quinlan as Australia’s “soft-footed, low-key, unthreatening omnipresence” in the UN. A man who knows the UN intimately and has carefully cultivated other members of the council.
He and Ms Bishop and their staff worked through the night and into the early hours, negotiating with the Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin while liaising with other members of the council, including the British ambassador and Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans who, like Ms Bishop, had come to New York to add firepower to his UN team before the vote.
Russia objected to language that referred to the plane being “shot down”. It was changed to “downed”, a distinction without a difference. In contravention of standard practice, Russia wanted Ukraine’s role in the investigation to be expunged. Instead it was agreed the Dutch would take the lead in a co-ordinated international effort.
The train carrying the bodies of MH17 victims was on the move towards Kharkiv on Monday night, local time. Photo: Reuters
By the time negotiations ended at about 1am, it seemed a draft was in place that Russia would back and that satisfied the demands of Australia and the Netherlands as well as the resolution’s co-sponsors – other nations that had lost citizens.
Talks continued on Monday morning but, as she headed into the Security Council meeting number 7221, Ms Bishop said she believed the resolution would be adopted.
Minutes later, Mr Churkin raised his left hand with his peers and it was done. Just four days had passed from the time the resolution was first drafted, to its circulation, its negotiation and finally its adoption. By contrast, it took the council more than two months to adopt a resolution calling for humanitarian access to civilians caught in Syria’s civil war.
By the time the vote was taken, there were already signs of co-operation by separatists on the ground and, as his UN ambassador prepared to vote, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally publicly called for the security of international experts at the site.
After the vote, the representatives made statements. Ms Bishop spoke first. She told the council of a couple from Perth she had spoken to who had lost their three children aged 12, 10 and eight who were travelling home from Europe on the flight with their grandfather.
“Our nation mourns the death of all the victims. I cannot begin to fathom the pain and anguish their family and friends are experiencing,” she said. “But grief is now accompanied by outrage as we witness grotesque violations at the crash site. This demands a response. That is why Australia has brought this resolution to the Security Council. Today, the Security Council has responded.”
Along with demanding a ceasefire and access to the site Ms Bishop called for action by Russia.
“Russia must use its influence over the separatists to ensure this. Russia must also use its influence to bring the conflict in Ukraine to an end.”
She described the incident and the behaviour of the separatists since as “deplorable”, “barbaric” and “despicable”.
Other speakers were similarly direct. Luxembourg too referred to the separatists as “despicable”, Britain referred to the incident as “sickening” and “appalling beyond belief” and to “separatist thugs". Nigeria called the attack as “heinous”.
US ambassador Samantha Power pointed the finger at Russia: “There is one party from which we have heard too little condemnation: and that is Russia.
“Russia has been outspoken on other matters. Russian officials have publicly insinuated that Ukraine was behind the crash. On Friday, Russia blamed Ukrainian air traffic controllers for this attack rather than condemning the criminals who shot down the plane. Since then, Russia has begun to blame Ukraine for the attack itself, though the missile came from separatist territory that Russia knows full well Ukraine has not yet reclaimed.
“But if Russia genuinely believed that Ukraine was involved in the shoot-down of Flight 17, surely President Putin would have told the separatists – many of whose leaders are from Russia – to guard the evidence at all costs, to maintain a forensically pure, hermetically sealed crime scene.”
Mr Churkin retaliated in kind, saying Ms Power had reduced the discussion to farce, and argued that Ukraine had significant questions to answer in any investigation that followed.
It was the statement by the Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister that stilled the room. “Since Thursday, I’ve been thinking how horrible the final moments of their lives must have been, when they knew the plane was going down," he said in loud, clear English, pausing once, perhaps to gather himself. “Did they lock hands with their loved ones? Did they hold their children close to their hearts? Did they look each other in the eyes, one final time, in a wordless goodbye? We will never know.”
As he spoke Ms Power, elbows on the table in front of her, briefly pressed her face into her open palms. Ms Bishop gazed across the room at him as he said: “I particularly want to thank Julie Bishop personally. Julie, we are in this together.”
He spoke devastatingly about the desecration of the site. “The last couple of days we have received very disturbing reports of bodies being moved about and looted for their possessions,” he said. “Just imagine for one minute, not as representatives of your countries, but as fathers and mothers, just imagine that one day you lose your loved one and then two or three days later see some thug steal their wedding ring from their remains.
“To my dying day I will not understand that it took so much time for the rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs and that human remains should be used in a political game. I hope the world will not have to witness this again, any time in the future.”