News Advisor Explainer: What the UN vote means for MH17

Explainer: What the UN vote means for MH17

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The UN Security Council has unanimously backed the MH17 resolution circulated by Australia, after Russia pushed for minor amendments.

The resolution, drafted by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her team in New York on Monday, condemned the crash and insisted that bodies be treated appropriately.

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It also demanded a ceasefire around the crash site (which rebels have agreed to), and that rebels refrain from tampering with the crash site and give “safe, secure, full and unrestricted access” to international investigators.

Security Council members, including the US, Great Britain and France, applauded Australia’s leadership on the resolution.

As host of this year’s G20 Summit in November, and President of the Security Council in November, Australia is taking a front-and-centre role in the disaster, flexing its international muscle with seemingly good results.

Julie Bishop with US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Argentina Ambassador Maria Cristina Perceval.
Julie Bishop with US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Argentina Ambassador Maria Cristina Perceval.

What did Russia want changed?

The resolution only passed after lengthy negotiations between Russia and Australia, which according to the Australian Financial Review stretched beyond 1am on Tuesday morning.

The only change reported by the AFR is that the words “shooting down” were changed to “downing”.

Australia reportedly pushed back against Russian demands that Ukraine not be responsible for leading the investigation.

What is the Security Council?

The UN Security Council is the most powerful body of the United Nations because it can impose economic sanctions, authorise the deployment of troops, and mandate ceasefires, amongst other powers.

It is responsible for protecting world peace, and was created after World War II to address the failures of its predecessor (The League of Nations) to prevent war.

It is composed of five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US), who are known as the “P5”.

The other ten non-permanent members are elected by the UN to serve two-year terms.

Hampered by veto powers

For much of its history, the council has been hindered by the veto power held by each of the permanent members.

It only takes one of the “P5” to vote against a resolution for it to be defeated. Invariably, these vetoes are used to serve national interests.

For example, Russia blocked condemnation of the Crimean referendum in March; both China and Russia vetoed sanctions against Syria in 2012; and the US voted down condemnation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank in 2011.

Australia played a key role in drafting the original rules of the council after World War II, and argued strongly against veto powers, but was ignored.

Why is Australia taking a leading role?

Australia was elected to the council in October 2012, its fifth term as a non-permanent member, after an expensive and time-intensive lobbying campaign by the Labor Government under Rudd and Gillard.

Members of the council take turns holding the presidency for one month. Australia will take on the role in November of this year.

Can it press criminal charges?

The Security Council elects the judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and may under Article 13(b) of the Rome Statute refer matters to the ICC’s Prosecutor.

Theoretically, the council could tell the Prosecutor to investigate the MH17 crash, but in reality Russia would probably use its veto power to prevent this.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Australia is the current President of the UN Security Council, when in fact it will not assume this role until November.

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