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Strengthening international frameworks and norms

Overview and Analysis

Our objective is to strengthen and shape the international rules and norms, and the institutions that uphold them, to promote global stability, peace and prosperity for all nations. In doing so, we promote the national interest by ensuring that the international rules-based order reflects Australia’s interests and values, including open markets, international law and norms to guide international cooperation, the articulation of universal rights and freedoms and a commitment by all states to work cooperatively on global problems.

MaryEllen Miller, Australian Ambassador to Denmark and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells met with Her Royal Highness The Crown Princess Mary of Denmark and Under-Secretary-General of the UN and Executive Director of UNOPS, Grete Faremo in Copenhagen, Denmark on 29 January [UN City Copenhagen]

Why does the international rules-based order matter

Australia’s security and prosperity in the post-Second World War era have been supported by a multilateral system of global institutions and rules designed to promote economic growth, global security and human development.

As the White Paper makes clear, this is a system now under significant challenge. Shifts in power between states, geopolitical competition and rising protectionism and nationalism are testing the effectiveness and cohesion of the multilateral system and the global order more broadly.

One of the five core objectives of the White Paper is to enhance Australia’s efforts to promote and protect the international rules and institutions that support stability and prosperity and enable cooperation to tackle global challenges.

This remains a foreign policy priority for Australia for three reasons. First, even in a period of uncertainty and change, the world’s interconnectedness makes global cooperation even more important. Many problems that directly affect our interests can only be tackled through cooperation with other states—they cannot be solved by unilateralism.

Second, we must help shape responses to global challenges because if we do not then others will, potentially in ways that diverge from our interests and our values.

Third, in many circumstances multilateral engagement magnifies our influence. By working with partners in coalitions and leveraging the resources and expertise of international organisations we can get more done.

The government’s global agenda concentrates on issues where Australia has vital security, economic and other interests, and where we are most likely to achieve results.

Below we highlight the department’s work across the multilateral system to:

  • shape and protect global rules and norms
  • guard against threats to international peace and security
  • protect the international environment in ways that also allow for sustainable growth of the Australian economy
  • strengthen human rights and gender equality.

Our performance in 2017-18

Engaging with the United Nations

The multilateral system continues to be challenged by an increasing reluctance by some states to respond collectively to global challenges. We engaged across the United Nations system to advance our multilateral goals and protect Australia’s interests.

We supported the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly’s High-Level Week, as she pursued our interests in counterterrorism and disarmament, water management, combating malaria and addressing modern slavery.

We continued to advocate for reform of the United Nations to make it better coordinated, more efficient and more effective. Our sustained efforts resulted in the General Assembly resolving to improve its development operations. Once implemented, the associated measures will require United Nations agencies to work more collaboratively on sustainable development, humanitarian and economic programs.

Security and the rules-based order

The international security environment is complex and contested, with significant polarisation evident in international forums. Ever closer interdependencies between our external and domestic security were evident. We continued to strengthen our policy coordination and integration with defence and national security departments and agencies including through secondments and exchanges. This provided further context for domestic security endeavours and put us in a stronger position to prosecute Australia’s interests internationally. Our engagement with overseas partners on key international security challenges has in turn enhanced Australia’s security at home.

Strengthening the global norms around non-proliferation and disarmament required robust and practical action in 2017–18. We advanced these efforts through our ongoing leadership of the Australia Group strategic export control regime to combat chemical and biological weapons proliferation. We also maintained strong engagement in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Missile Technology Control Regime.

We worked to bring users of chemical weapons to account. We supported the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks and hold perpetrators to account. We advanced the foundations for negotiating a fissile material cut-off treaty and continued our advocacy of the Arms Trade Treaty to regulate trade in conventional weapons (see reviews). We engaged with the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification, consistent with our pursuit of practical and effective verification and transparency measures to promote global nuclear disarmament.

On 7 July, Assistant Secretary, Strategic Issues and Intelligence Branch, Robert McKinnon, discussed “The Indo-Pacific Security Dynamic” at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Vienna [DFAT/Vienna UN Post]

Australia and its partners stand up for rules against chemical weapons attacks

At the end of last century it seemed chemical weapons would forever be relegated to history. International rules and safeguards ensured chemical industry and scientific developments contributed to human well-being, but not to the spread of toxic chemicals that could cause human suffering or be used as weapons.

However, the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, Iraq, Malaysia and the United Kingdom threatens global security and global non-proliferation arrangements. It is in Australia’s national security interests to ensure the international rules-based order and the prohibition of any use of such weapons is upheld.

In June we worked with our international partners to rally a record 153 States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention and to recommit politically to the long-standing prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.

States Parties adopted a landmark decision to empower the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to name those found responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria, and to consider expanding this authority to any use of chemical weapons anywhere. As a member of the United Kingdom-led core group behind this unprecedented outcome, Australia again demonstrated its strong stance against chemical weapons, which remains undiminished since our integral role in establishing the Chemical Weapons Convention over 20 years ago.

This result follows other efforts by Australia and coalition partners to hold to account users of chemical weapons and those who shield them. In January Australia became a founding member of the International Partnership Against Impunity for the Use of Chemical Weapons to maintain public pressure on users and the importance of bringing them to justice.

As chair of the Australia Group—a 43-member group dedicated to working against the spread of chemical and biological weapons—we led a consensus statement at the June plenary expressing grave concern about the use of chemical weapons, and urging support for efforts to strengthen global non-proliferation arrangements.

Countering terrorism and violent extremism remains a high priority for Australia. It is a global threat no country can tackle alone. In 2017–18 we maintained our comprehensive approach in bilateral, regional and multilateral forums to respond to the threat to global security posed by terrorism and violent extremism.

We co-chaired with Indonesia the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s Countering Violent Extremism Working Group. This enables both countries to embed lessons from Australian and Southeast Asian approaches into global best practice. The signing of the ASEAN-Australia Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation to Counter International Terrorism by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in March, illustrated our resolve to address terrorism through regional leadership (see case study). We remained closely engaged with the Defeat-ISIS coalition, particularly the Communications and Foreign Terrorist Fighter Working Groups. This complemented Australia’s military efforts within that coalition, and demonstrated our commitment to countering terrorism. Our capacity building efforts in the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, South Asia, East and West Africa and Europe raised Australia’s profile as a security partner including in strengthening international counter-terrorism capacity.

Australia implemented United Nations and autonomous sanctions to address situations of international concern and seeks to influence and penalise those responsible. In 2017­–18 we implemented new United Nations Security Council sanctions and autonomous sanctions against North Korea; sanctioned additional individuals and entities responsible for threats to the territorial integrity of Ukraine; and expanded sanctions targeting those linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program.

MH17 update

We continued to co-lead efforts to seek accountability for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. On 24 May 2018, the Joint Investigation Team announced that the BUK missile system used to down MH17 belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation. In light of these and earlier findings by the investigation team, on 25 May Australia and the Netherlands asserted Russia’s responsibility for its role in the incident and requested that it enter into negotiations to open dialogue around the circumstances leading to this tragic event. Australia is also continuing to pursue accountability for the individual perpetrators of the downing by providing practical and political support to the Netherlands in the separate, but complementary, criminal prosecutions.

The launch of the department’s comprehensive International Cyber Engagement Strategy and its subsequent implementation fulfilled a core commitment of the Australian Government’s Cyber Security Strategy. We deepened Australia’s bilateral, regional and multilateral engagement to reinforce the rules-based international order in cyberspace and to promote an open, free and secure internet that drives economic growth, protects national security and fosters international stability (see review).

As an integral element of our commitment to the rules-based international order, we led Australia’s delegation to the 16th Session of the Assembly of States Parties of the International Criminal Court (ICC), held in New York in December. Following robust negotiations, the Assembly of States Parties to the ICC ‘activated’ the court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression. This was a historic moment, completing the Rome Statute project as originally envisaged.

The department worked closely with other agencies to support global rules and norms to combat transnational crime, money laundering and terrorist financing. This includes in the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and in the Financial Action Task Force. We supported the Australian Federal Police’s international efforts to disrupt the trafficking of methamphetamine and its precursors to Australia. We also worked with the Department of Home Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Department to deliver the Indo-Pacific Justice and Security Program—an aid program that contributes to partner country efforts to disrupt, investigate and deter transnational crime and violent extremism in the Indo-Pacific.

Foreign interference is a threat to the sovereignty and security of Australia and Australians. We worked closely with other agencies to support reforms to protect Australia’s institutions and democratic processes against foreign interference that undermines our sovereignty and democratic institutions and values. The department also worked with international partners to help them mitigate foreign interference risks in our region.

Gender equality

The department worked across the multilateral system to pursue better outcomes on gender equality. We continue to see pressure on women’s human rights at all levels, which is often an early warning of increasing extremism, inequality and conflict. Women continue to be under-represented in peace building processes and decision-making, and more disadvantaged economically.

We supported the Minister for Foreign Affairs in her address to the United Nations on International Women’s Day on 8 March, the only country representative invited to do so. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific also addressed gender equality at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls supported Australia’s advocacy for gender equality across a range of regional and global multilateral forums, including APEC, ASEAN, Pacific Islands Forum, the International Labour Organization (Asia/Pacific regional), and at the Commission on the Status of Women, and the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.

We collaborated with other agencies to support the first ASEAN–Australia dialogue on Women, Peace and Security and in the margins of the 2018 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting we initiated an event at which the United Nations High Representative for Disarmament spoke on the need for gender equality in disarmament.

Australia invested USD5 million in the World Bank-led Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund (We-Fi) with a further USD5 million investment planned in 2018–19. We-Fi aims to leverage significant new capital for women-led businesses from government and private sector financial contributions. $3 million helped the NGO Women’s World Banking to trial innovative banking and insurance solutions, including digital and online financial services, to low income women in Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.

Our investment of approximately $1.4 million in the Investing in Women program leveraged over $1.7 million in additional private sector resources from impact investors to move more capital to women entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia.

Climate change and the environment

The department led Australia’s negotiations on the implementing rules for the Paris Agreement on climate change, including as Chair of the Umbrella Group. Robust rules will set the terms for global climate action for years to come, and guide trillions of dollars of investments in the transition to a low-emissions, climate-resilient global economy.

We supported the Green Climate Fund, the largest multilateral organisation supporting developing countries to address climate change. The fund has now approved USD3.7 billion to support 76 climate change adaptation and mitigation projects and programs in 79 developing countries. We maintained Australia’s long-standing support for the Global Environment Facility, concluding negotiations on a new four-year investment cycle to help safeguard the environment. This will also deliver better value for money through stronger collaboration with the private sector. With Australia’s support, the Global Green Growth Institute helped mobilise USD524.6 million in green investments, of which USD412 million came from the private sector.

We achieved important climate change and trade objectives through Australia’s participation in the International Maritime Organization’s April agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ships. Its strategy balances the maritime sector’s role in reducing global emissions while supporting global trade.

The world’s oceans are facing numerous threats. In December Australia joined other United Nations members in agreeing to expand the UNCLOS framework and start negotiations on a new treaty to conserve and sustainably use marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.

We led Australia’s international engagement in the Antarctic Treaty system and worked with the Department of the Environment and Energy to implement the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan. The government announced its intention to construct a paved runway near Davis Research Station in East Antarctica. The runway will support our international partnerships and provide better access to important areas of Antarctica.

Australia’s treaty-making process

We managed the domestic aspects of Australia’s treaty-making process, tabled 27 major treaty actions in Parliament and referred 17 minor treaty actions for consideration by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. We facilitated Australia’s signing of 19 treaties.



Performance criteria



Australia's election to the Human Rights Council for the 2018–2020 term and our performance over the first six months of our term.

Deliver outcome


Corporate Plan 2017-18, p. 19

Implementation of a comprehensive International Cyber Engagement Strategy.



Finalise an ASEAN–Australia Counter-Terrorism Memorandum of Understanding.

Deliver outcome


Promote and achieve a consensus outcome for the High Level Panel on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty.

Deliver outcome


Advance India’s applications for membership of export control regimes, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group.



Promote and achieve increased ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty across the Asia–Pacific region.

Deliver outcome

Partially Met

Assess the success of our performance at the 2018 Commonwealth Summit in:

  • shaping multilateral outcomes, institutions and norms to advance the interests of Australia and our Commonwealth partners
  • providing whole-of-government leadership and coordination on multilateral issues and in multilateral forums.

Case study


PBS 2017-18, Program 1.5, p. 35

Corporate Plan 2017-18, p. 19


Deliver outcome: Australia’s election to the Human Rights Council for the 2018–2020 term and our performance over the first six months of our term

Australia was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2017 for an inaugural three-year term following a four-year campaign led by the department. We campaigned on gender equality, freedom of expression, good governance and robust democratic institutions, human rights for indigenous peoples and strong national human rights institutions. See dfat.gov.au/international-relations/international-organisations/un/unhrc-2018-2020/statements/Pages/38th-session-of-the-human-rights-council.aspx

Australia is also advocating for abolition of the death penalty worldwide, freedom of religion and belief, the rights of people with a disability, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) communities and for civil society participation in human rights issues.

In delivering Australia’s first statement as an HRC member on 26 February, the Governor-General outlined our long-standing and principled engagement across the multilateral human rights system and our commitment to advancing human rights globally.

Australia demonstrated in the first two sessions as a member (HRC37 and HRC38) our credentials as a principled, pragmatic and consultative member, advancing issues of particular importance in the Indo-Pacific and amplifying the voices of our Pacific neighbours. Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls delivered a statement on women’s empowerment through ICT issues, joined by 14 Pacific countries including many not represented in Geneva.

Working closely with other government departments we negotiated 63 resolutions, delivered 52 national statements on country-specific and thematic issues, and joined 39 joint statements.

Outside the HRC, Australia continued to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and released its first whole-of-government Strategy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in June. In line with our commitment to increase our engagement with civil society on human rights issues, we supported civil society representatives to attend international meetings to promote issues such as gender equality and LGBTI rights.

Professor Narelle Bedford, Professor Tom Calma, Robyn Forester, Deputy Secretary Richard Maude, Dr Stephen Hagen and Assistant Secretary Damien Miller celebrating National Reconciliation Week [DFAT/Patrick Taylor]

Review: Implementation of a comprehensive Cyber Engagement Strategy

The Minister for Foreign Affairs launched Australia’s International Cyber Engagement Strategy in October. International cyber issues present challenges and opportunities for all Australians, every day.

Developed by the department, with whole-of-government input, the strategy’s overarching objective is to promote peace and stability in cyberspace, while maximising economic growth and opportunities for Australia and Australians. Action is underway across all 61 activities in the strategy’s action plan, as highlighted below.

Now more than ever we must engage with the international community as exciting possibilities emerge, critical debates unfold and global rules develop. Some countries are increasingly testing the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in cyberspace. We worked with international partners to reinforce the rules-based order. We promoted an international cyber stability framework based on the application of existing international law, and agreed voluntary standards for responsible state behaviour and confidence building measures, supported by capacity building.

Australia is committed to developing a new international cooperative architecture to deter and respond to cyber incidents. The department led Australia’s participation in coordinated diplomatic action to call out unacceptable behaviour in cyberspace, including:

  • DPRK (WannaCry, December)
  • Russia (NotPetya, February)
  • Russia (router scanning, April).

We are reviewing the options available to deter and respond to cyber incidents.

We secured high-level commitments to promote a peaceful and stable online environment with counterparts from ASEAN, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, United Kingdom and United States. In April Australia announced it would join NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, a world-leading hub.

We supported a standalone meeting on strategic cyber issues at the ASEAN Regional Forum, endorsed by ministers in August. Australia and Malaysia co-sponsored a proposal in this new forum to establish a cyber point of contact database to facilitate communication in times of crisis.

We led whole-of-government cyber policy dialogues with Japan, China, the Republic of Korea, India and Indonesia, and announced a new Australia–ASEAN cyber dialogue. Australian delegations were led by the Ambassador for Cyber Affairs and included representatives from cyber teams across government.

Australia committed $30 million over four years to 2020 to support implementation of the strategy, with a focus on the Indo-Pacific. This includes an enhanced cyber security partnership with Papua New Guinea, in the lead up to the APEC Leaders Week in November and beyond. It also includes 29 projects under the department’s Cyber Cooperation Program, focused to enhance regional incident response and combating cyber crime capacity, and preserve a peaceful and stable online environment.

Australia’s international cyber engagement is comprehensive and coordinated. It fulfils our core commitment to promote an open, free and secure internet, which drives economic growth, enhances our national security and promotes international stability.

Deliver outcome: Finalise an ASEAN–Australia Counter-Terrorism Memorandum of Understanding

Australia and ASEAN signed the ASEAN–Australia Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation to Counter International Terrorism on 17 March at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit (see case study on p.35).

Deliver outcome: Promote and achieve a consensus outcome for the High Level Panel on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty

The department contributed to a successful outcome of the Expert Preparatory Group for a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty with the Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office as one of 25 technical expert representatives. The consensus outcome provides possible treaty elements as a basis for when negotiations might start. While there remain significant challenges before such negotiations can commence, a treaty remains a next logical step in progressing global nuclear disarmament, and continues to be one of Australia’s priority nuclear disarmament objectives.

Evaluation: Advance India’s applications for membership of export control regimes, including the Nuclear Suppliers Group

Progress has been made in advancing India’s membership of the various export control regimes. To date, India has been admitted to the Missile Technology Control Regime (June 2016), Wassenaar Arrangement (December 2017) and the Australia Group (January 2018).

Australia worked closely with other delegations at the June Nuclear Suppliers Group plenary to ensure India’s membership for 2018–19 was considered. Given India’s emergence as a potentially significant nuclear supplier, its membership will benefit global non-proliferation.

Some governments in the Nuclear Suppliers Group are resisting membership of non-Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty states, including India. Australia is continuing discussions to address these concerns and to meet global non-proliferation objectives.

Deliver outcome: Promote and achieve increased ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty across the Asia–Pacific region

We continued to promote ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. The ATT establishes international standards to regulate the trade in conventional arms and to prevent their diversion. It aims to reduce human suffering and to advance peace, security and stability. This includes by preventing the illicit use of conventional arms in transnational crime, terrorist acts, and serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

The broader the support for and participation in the ATT, the more likely a universal standard of export risk assessment will become normal state practice. This will inhibit exporters from exploiting gaps to circumvent the system. Strengthened export controls advance peace and security and in turn strengthen global security and stability.

We worked closely with the Centre for Armed Violence Reduction to promote the benefits of joining the ATT in our region and provided technical assistance to countries. Our joint publication, Reinvigorating the Narrative: The Broader Benefits of the Arms Trade Treaty, detailed the broader benefits of joining the ATT.

In February Australia and New Zealand co-sponsored a Pacific Conference on Conventional Weapons Treaties to encourage countries to accede to the ATT. Fourteen countries participated. While few Pacific island countries export arms, the region is vulnerable to diversion of arms and illicit trade in small arms. The conference declaration noted that the ATT’s requirements would make an important contribution to leaders’ vision of the Pacific as a region of peace, harmony, security and economic prosperity. Several Pacific countries are now undertaking cabinet or parliamentary processes to seek approval for ratification. A follow-up conference is planned in late 2018 to maintain momentum.

Case study: Assess the success of our performance at the 2018 Commonwealth Summit

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) took place in London from 16 to 20 April. It brought together a record 47 leaders from 53 member nations. The Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific represented Australia at the meeting.

Australia drove the discussion on the international rules-based order on issues of sovereignty and trade. Against the backdrop of the Salisbury nerve agent attacks, we secured commitments to adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Leaders’ Statement and Communiqué.

We advocated for a free and open multilateral trading system, and the need to resist protectionism. Working with others we protected the independence of election observation missions from attempts to weaken this important mechanism of Commonwealth democratic activity. Working across government, we promoted outcomes on gender equality, disability, health and modern slavery, and proposals on climate change, financing and migration.

Australia also used CHOGM to engage with Pacific island countries and advocate for their interests, including for a Pacific island country to host CHOGM. We welcomed the United Kingdom's announcement of new missions in the Pacific and announced one million dollars in further support for the Climate Finance Access Hub.

The department supported leader-level consensus on CHOGM 2018 outcomes, including the Commonwealth Blue Charter, Commonwealth Cyber Declaration, the Declaration on the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda for Trade and Investment, and the revised guidelines for Commonwealth election observation.