In Defence of Multilateralism

In Defence of Multilateralism: How Australian politics can impact Colombia

Co-authored by CPD fellow James Arvanitakis and Amy Tyler.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed the political landscape of the world. The terrorist threat to democracy – be it real or perceived – divided countries’ international relations into two broad camps. One side proclaimed that the terrorist threat required a reinforcement of security ahead of human rights and multilateral relations. In direct contrast, others expressed their fears that policies proclaiming ‘a war on terrorism’ were resulting in a ‘war on democracy.’[i]

The foreign policies of the Howard government demonstrated a decision to follow the path of security over the protection of human rights. By embracing the unilateral agenda of the Bush presidency and buying whole-heartedly into the ‘war on terror’, the Howard government undermined multilateral institutions including the United Nations. Unfortunately, the support given to United States’ unilateralism has done little to eradicate terrorism, or more importantly, its underlying causes that include human rights abuses, political marginalisation and poverty.[ii]

Under the new Rudd government, multilateralism is back on Australia’s foreign affairs agenda. Jonathan Pearlman, Foreign Affairs Correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald notes, “the most marked shift” in Kevin Rudd’s foreign politics is his government’s “commitment to multilateralism, the UN and international rule.”[iii] Such a shift is hardly surprising for Kevin Rudd, who as the then Opposition spokesperson for foreign affairs, claimed that the “multilateral system…despite deficiencies – is infinitely superior to all other attempts at an international order in the history of humankind.”[iv] The Rudd’s government desire to advance multilateral relations is illustrated by Australia seeking election to the United Nations Security Council for 2013-2014.

The contrast between the two leaders was highlighted in the APEC meeting last year. On the one hand, the then Prime Minister, John Howard, chatted and shared jokes with President Bush while at the same time claiming that due to “cultural differences” trade is the only way to develop relations with countries such as China. On the other hand, Kevin Rudd presented George Bush with two books: a biography of John Curtin, the Australian architect of the alliance with the US; and a treatise on Chinese diplomacy in East Asia, while declaring – in fluent Mandarin – his family’s deep admiration of China.[v]

Consequently, there now has emerged an opportunity for Australia to play a more progressive and considered role in world affairs. The Rudd government’s enthusiasm to revive Australia’s role in multilateral affairs, as well as a corresponding shift in world politics as the failures of the campaign in Iraq become more apparent, means that there is a possibility for more thoughtful policy direction in so far as promoting genuine democratic rule in order to halt the spread of terrorism.

This paper explores how the multilateral policies of the Rudd government can have significant implications for international security and stability. Though Australia’s current relationship with Colombia may not be the most obvious place to begin such a discussion, it has important implications in the broader South American context and provides an important a case study in the far-reaching implications of multilateralism.[vi]

Multilateralism v. Unilateralism

Before discussing Australia’s potential multilateral policy mix, it is important to recognise that multilateralism actually developed from an international desire to prevent the atrocities that occurred in the Second World War, which many claimed were due to lack of timely, international intervention.[vii] The multilateral system, first exemplified by the UN, is particularly important for the advancement of ideals such as international human rights and democracy.

When discussing multilateralism, we mean “an institutional form that coordinates relations among three or more states on the basis of generalised principles of conduct… without regard to the particularistic interests of the parties or the strategic exigencies that may exist in any specific occurrence.”[viii] It should be noted that for the purposes of this paper, we are focussing on ‘political multilateralism.’ Lisa Martin reminds us that we also need to distinguish between the “institution of multilateralism” and “multilateral organisations.” The former represents the principles of multilateralism, while the later is the organisational form that these principles are enacted, whose form can vary greatly.[ix]

Multilateralism differs from the unilateral approaches to world politics insofar as it is sympathetic with national sovereignty within the confines of international cooperation. This can be contrasted to unilateral foreign policy because in a multilateral system a state indicates its commitment and willingness to the ideal of cooperation by submitting “their own internal human rights practices to some international review.”[x] Thus, a certain level of sovereignty is ceded in order to achieve greater justice internationally.

Importantly, multilateralism attempts to diffuse the power relations that exist between states upon the principle that no-one state is superior to another. For the purpose of this paper, multilateral systems are particularly significant in questions of security because they give prevalence to the development of international relations that treat the causes – rather than the effects – of terrorism. This point was recently emphasised by Brenden Lin, who argued only international cooperation and multilateral processes can achieve sustainable international security by eradicating the causes of terrorism – including poverty and human rights violations – that provide impetus for terrorist groups.[xi]

Australia’s potential multilateral agenda in Colombia

According to DFAT, “Australia and Colombia share a good and expanding relationship” with Colombia reopening its embassy in Australia and strengthening its ties in the Asian Pacific region.[xii] DFAT also notes that Australia and Colombia “enjoy sound bilateral commercial relations in the mining, energy and education sectors,” with an expanding trade relationship. This cooperation takes place through multilateral bodies such as the Cairns Group, the Pacific Basin Economic Council and the Forum for East Asia and Latin America Cooperation. Colombia is also actively seeking membership to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum: though last year Colombia’s application for membership was once again rejected. Colombia’s aspiration to join the APEC is a natural progression in consecutive governments’ desire to develop the immense wealth found in the forest, fishing, river-and-sea mineral resources of the Pacific region. Implemented in 1985, the development of the Pacific coast has been carried out under the Plan Pacifico with the aim being to develop the Colombian Pacific into a platform for dynamic trade with East and South East Asia and the Pacific Rim.[xiii]

Colombia, however, is in the throes of a chronic political crisis that threatens its status as an internationally recognised democracy.

While a detailed discussion of Colombia’s domestic situation is beyond the scope of this paper, it must be noted that in 2002, Colombia voted to power President Alvaro Uribe on a hard-line platform for security. Uribe promised the electorate to eradicate the guerrilla groups that have been terrorising Colombian society since the 1960s and declared that the only effective policy against terrorism was “authority.”[xiv] Embracing the ‘war on terror’ discourse to justify many of his policies.

The government claims military success insofar as they have significantly weakened the FARC guerrilla groups and regained control over territory. One frequently promoted statistic is the achievement by the government to provide police presence in every municipality in Colombia. This is significant because in 2004, of the 1,096 municipalities in the country, more than 180 had no police presence.[xv]

On the other hand, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations including the local groups such as Indapez have accused the government of grave human rights violations. While media attention has focussed on the role of the FARC guerrilla group, the ongoing internal conflict and security crisis is much broader and involves both the government and government-supported paramilitary groups. This is corroborated by the Colombian Commission of Jurists who claims that 75 percent of human rights violations are directly or indirectly committed by the Colombian government.[xvi] The role of Uribe’s government in such human rights abuses was recognised by the USA Congress that withdrew its support of $55.2 million dollars in aid.[xvii]

The intense development of the Pacific region has also had mixed results. While trading routes have been developed and expanded, the development has caused environmental and economic havoc that has resulted in cultural erosion and the displacement of Indigenous peoples. Moreover, the infiltration of illegal drug production and trafficking has destabilised the area even further. Unsurprisingly, economic development alone has done little to alleviate the structural poverty in the region even if Uribe has increased the police and army presence.

The short-term success of Uribe’s strategy has long-term negative consequences both domestically and abroad. Human rights abuses and the ongoing socio-economic inequalities will mean the FARC and other guerrilla groups will continue to have a ready pool of potential recruits and the conflict will continue. With porous borders in the region, there is always potential that the conflict will result in increasing tensions with Colombia’s neighbours and instability in the region. These tensions were clearly apparent when the Colombia military abused Ecuadorian sovereignty by launching an attack against FARC rebels stationed within the Ecuador’s borders this year.[xviii]

The multilateral solution offered by APEC: a new approach to defence

The Minister for Trade, Simon Crean, has argued that the promotion of and adherence to a multilateral system is particularly important when it comes to bilateral trading regimes because it often provides the principles, standards and norms against which countries can measure up. [xix]Multilateral foreign policies have the potential to shift the norms and ideas that shape international relations.

If Australia is serious about multilateralism then our improved relations with Colombia should support their economic development in a way that does not violate human rights or undermine democracy. APEC is one forum where Australia should promote a joint economic development/human rights agenda: breaking from the Howard legacy of seeing these as separate issues.

To achieve this aim, however, involves a certain level of reflexivity. Domestically, Australia needs to embrace greater transparency with regards to potential human rights abuses. We must be open to international scrutiny and be prepared to modify both our policies and our actions as a result of the findings.

The Australia government should take advantage of Colombia’s desire to become a member of APEC to demand the Colombian government improve their human rights performance. Economic development cannot come at the cost of human rights or democracy because, in the long run, this will only encourage terrorist activities. This stance – the improvement of our own human rights activities and the demand that Colombia improves theirs – would be an example of how the international community can work to promote real security with long-term positive consequences. It is only through such development that a real alternative to security can be achieved – and real solutions to terrorism be found. It is for this reason that multilaterialism must be re-embraced and defended.
[i] Sikkink (2005); 21

[ii] Lin, B. (2008), “Embracing multilateralism, A commitment”, Evatt Foundation,

[iii] Pearlman, J (2008), “Time will tell whether this is a foreign policy departure”, Sydney Morning Herald, 2008 March 2008.
[iv]Rudd, K (2002), “Undermining our best chance, Australia’s dying multilateralism”, Evatt Foundation,

[v] Crabbe, S. (2007) “Whither Australian Foreign Policy? Asia-Pacific policies of John Howard and Kevin Rudd on stage at APEC”,…

[vi] The impetus for writing this paper is the result of a series of interviews that were part of a pilot project about citizenship in Colombia. The interviews have, for the most part, focussed on various human rights NGOs and a distinct theme that emerged is the need for the international community to demand greater accountability from the Colombian government to improve its human rights practices: something that can only be achieved via multilateral institutions.

[vii] Ruggie, J.G. (1994) “Third try at World Order: America and Multilateralism after the Cold War” Political Science Quarterly, Vol 109, No.4: Autumn, pp 553 – 570.

[viii] Ruggie, J.G. (1994), ibid.

[ix] Martin, L.L. “Interests, Power, and Multilateralism”, International Organization, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 765-792

[x] Sikkink, 2005; 10

[xi]Lin, B. (2008), “Embracing multilateralism, A commitment”, Evatt Foundation,

[xii] DFAT (2008), “Colombia Country Brief 2007”

[xiii] Barnes, J. (1993) The Colombian Plan Pacifico: Sustaining the Unsustainable, Condensed report issued by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, London.

[xiv]President Uribe quoted on PBS (2002),” Uribe elected president of war-torn Colombia”,

[xv] PCSD (2007), “Politica de Consolidacion de la Seguridad Democratica”, Ministerio de Defensa Nacional, Republica de Colombia

[xvi] Colombian Commission of Jurists (2007), “Colombia 2002 – 2006: Situation regarding human rights and humanitarian law”, Bogotá Colombia

[xvii] Feffer, J (2007) “Keep the Freeze On Colombia”, Foreign Policy In Focus,

[xviii] El Tiempo, Marzo 3 de 2008, “Ecuador estaba traficando con secuestrados con fines políticos, afirma Gobierno colombiano”,

[xix] Crean, S (2008), “Australia’s Role in Addressing the Future of the Multilateral Trading System”