COVID-19 is a powerful reminder that Australia’s interests are best served through cooperation with others, underpinned by a robust and effective multilateral system and international law, including human rights.
This system complements our bilateral and regional partnerships in the Indo-Pacific and around the world. We work with diverse partners to strengthen ties, build influence and mitigate risk. These relationships are of special value in times of crisis.
Shaping international rules and norms
The department leads Australia’s engagement in the multilateral system. We advocate for openness, transparency and upholding international law, and aim to ensure these institutions, rules and norms operate in ways that support Australia’s interests.
How we rate our performance*
Australia’s diplomatic efforts and financial contributions help shape institutions, rules and forms of cooperation in line with our national interests.
Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 19, PBS 2019–20 program 1.4 p. 32 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 programs 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and 1.4
*Our assessments are informed by international resolutions and statements, multilateral assessments and audit, engagement with domestic and international stakeholders, international treaties and outcomes documents, diplomatic reporting, membership of multilateral bodies and implementation of reform processes
On balance we rate the department as ‘on track’ against this performance measure, but acknowledge the multilateral system is under considerable strain. Details of our performance are provided under the headings below.
The department’s whole-of-government audit of Australia’s engagement with the United Nations and international standard-setting bodies examined more than 100 multilateral institutions, processes and forums. The audit affirmed multilateral institutions deliver outcomes vital to global prosperity and stability, and to Australia’s interests, but are under strain from shifts in global power, technological disruption and unprecedented global challenges.
Following the audit, we have implemented a strategy for multilateral engagement, which seeks to ensure global institutions are fit for purpose to address current challenges, accountable to member states, free from undue influence and focused appropriately on our Indo-Pacific region. We aim to support fundamental parts of the multilateral system, including the rules, norms, standards and values, which underpin stability, prosperity and our trade and economic interests. Consistent with this approach, Australia has continued to play an active role in influencing and shaping global institutions, including pursuing candidacies for leadership and board positions.
We were active in human rights institutions in line with our national interests through our membership of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) (2018–2020) and engagement in human rights discussions in the UN General Assembly and other forums.
In three HRC sessions over the year, we negotiated 103 resolutions (co-sponsoring 60), delivered 65 national statements, and joined 34 statements to advance country-specific and thematic human rights issues. These actions defended the universality of established human rights norms and in particular promoted the rights of women and girls, and Indigenous and LGBTI people. We advocated for freedom of expression, good governance, strong national human rights institutions and freedom of religion or belief.
We held countries to account on their human rights records, particularly those serving as fellow members of the HRC. This included action on human rights situations in Eritrea, the Philippines and Xinjiang, China. We also led a joint HRC statement on human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, which called for truth and accountability in relation to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
As part of our commitment to amplify the voices of the Pacific during our HRC membership, Australia coordinated two Pacific joint statements on issues of importance to our region: in July on youth employment and education, and in June on women in multilateralism.
We supported a strong role for multilateral human rights institutions in responding to COVID-19. We delivered and joined statements at the HRC and the UN General Assembly calling for COVID-19 emergency measures to comply with international human rights law, highlighting concerns over backsliding on human rights during the pandemic.
Australia considers gender equality and human rights as important for security, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.
During COVID-19 the Foreign Minister and Minister for Women has led discussions in our region, including with Pacific Women Leaders, which recognised that meaningful participation of women in responses to the crisis will be important to our longer-term economic recovery efforts. Interactions across the region have highlighted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and girls and have informed our activities under the development program.
In the year which marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Action Plan on Women, Australia has continued our defence of gender equality and international gender rights and norms, including sexual reproductive health and rights, in our final year on the HRC, in the G20, APEC, MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia), the Commonwealth and beyond. We supported the Office for Women in promoting Australia’s candidacy for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the first such campaign in 30 years. If successful, it will provide another opportunity for Australian leadership on gender equality issues globally.
We continued Australia’s strong advocacy of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda introduced by UN Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 1325, this year advocating for women’s roles in conflict resolution and peacekeeping at the UNSC and HRC. As part of our COVID-19 response, the department contributed additional funding to UN Women’s two key WPS funds with grass-roots partners: the WPS Global Facility and the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund. These delivered projects in humanitarian contexts through:
Elsie Initiative funding, to promote women’s meaningful participation in peacebuilding and peacekeeping (both at risk during the pandemic)
increased support to women and girl survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, the demand for which has increased during COVID-19.
As chair of the Umbrella Group of countries—one of four major groups in global climate change negotiations that includes the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and others—Australia played a leading role in negotiations on Paris Agreement implementation. Our officials:
served on technical bodies under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including the Standing Committee on Finance and the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage
contributed technical expertise
supported policy development.
At the 2019 Madrid COP25 Climate Conference, the department worked with countries to deliver an enhanced, five-year Gender Action Plan for 2020–2024. This will support women’s participation in the UNFCCC process and help countries integrate gender equality into climate change action.
Australia has worked with Pacific partners to build recognition of the connection between oceans and climate change, and we welcome the upcoming dialogue at COP26 to highlight and profile the importance of climate change mitigation and adaptation in relation to the ocean. We engaged internationally and regionally to build resilience of ocean ecosystems to climate change and enhance international efforts towards a sustainable ocean economy.
COVID-19 had a direct impact on how we work, limiting international meetings and deferring the 2020 COP26 climate conference to 2021. This has delayed agreement on rules for carbon markets and the transparency framework under the Paris Agreement. Australia is working with partners to continue progress through virtual forums.
Strengthening international law
We led Australia’s engagement in reforming the International Criminal Court and supporting its core mandate as a court of last resort. We participated in initiatives to strengthen compliance with international humanitarian law, including the 33rd Conference of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
We worked within international forums and with international partners to share sanctions policy and regulatory best practice. We also supported countries in the region to strengthen their implementation of sanctions obligations.
Australia partnered with Thailand in proposing the East Asia Summit Leaders’ Statement on Cooperation to Combat Transnational Crime in November. Our leadership on this issue recognises the threat from trans-boundary crime to regional stability.
We led Australia’s international engagement in the Antarctic Treaty system, which celebrated the treaty’s 60th anniversary in December. The department and the Australian Antarctic Division of the then Department of Environment and Energy inspected foreign bases throughout East Antarctica—the most extensive Australian inspection program to date—finding a high level of compliance with the Antarctic Treaty system.
Following the conclusion of the conciliation between Australia and Timor-Leste, the Maritime Boundaries Treaty entered into force in August. The treaty establishes permanent maritime boundaries between our two countries and a stable legal framework for the development of gas and oil resources in the Timor Sea. It upholds Australia’s commitment to international rules and the peaceful resolution of disputes, and reflects our full commitment to the independence, sovereignty and economic sustainability of Timor-Leste.
We promoted the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and maritime cooperation with regional partners, co-hosting with Timor-Leste and Malaysia an ASEAN Regional Forum Workshop. This focused on the Timor-Leste and Australia Conciliation, providing an opportunity to engage in the detail and consider different models of dispute resolution for the region, as well as highlighting the strong bilateral relationship between Australia and Timor-Leste.
Australia remains committed to pursuing justice for all 298 victims of MH17, including the 38 people who called Australia home. We supported the commencement of the Dutch prosecution of four suspects in the downing. Prosecuting these crimes in an open and independent court sends a powerful message that perpetrators will face justice, and reinforces the rule of law and international rules-based order. Australia contributed $9.1 million to the Dutch Government to help support the internationalisation of the trials. Our MH17 Family Support Package also supported next of kin to travel to the Netherlands to observe and participate in the prosecution. We continue, together with the Netherlands, to hold talks with Russia regarding its role in the downing of the aircraft.
Working with the UN and the Commonwealth
We protected and shaped international rules and standards that reflect our values and interests through pragmatic engagement and consensus building in the UN General Assembly and its subsidiary organs. We drove priority issues such as human rights, gender equality, disability inclusion and system reform. Our successful advocacy for greater UN coordination and resourcing in the Pacific helped Pacific countries prepare and respond to COVID-19.
The impact of COVID-19 in New York resulted in all UN meetings being held virtually. We adapted our working methods to continue remote participation in UN events, briefings, negotiations and elections.
Australia worked closely with the UN and international partners to promote security and stability in the immediate region and globally, including through our contribution to UN peacekeeping missions and in response to COVID-19. Following a cross-government review of Australia’s contributions to peace operations, Australia committed to preserving our position as a peacekeeping partner of choice for Indo-Pacific countries, and to maintaining our leadership role in shaping the peace and security agenda.
We worked to strengthen the effectiveness of UN institutions, holding them to account through our positions on governing boards and key donor groups. We influenced reform measures on governance, transparency and accountability, and ensured appropriate rigour was applied to UN budgets and activities. Australia is effectively promoting transparency and evidence-based decision making through our seat on the World Heritage Committee (2017–2021).
The department supported successful campaigns for Australia to be re-elected to the governing councils of the International Maritime Organization Council and the International Civil Aviation Organization Council. These UN agencies regulate international cooperation on maritime transport and civil aviation, which are vital for Australia’s prosperity.
Australia is an active member of the Commonwealth and supporter of the organisation’s values of democracy, rule of law, development and peace. As Vice-Chair of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, Australia welcomed Maldives back to the Commonwealth, which brought the membership to 54 countries. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2020 in Rwanda was put on hold due to COVID-19.
World Health Organization
The department played a key role in securing and shaping a mandate for an independent evaluation into the COVID-19 response through a resolution of the World Health Assembly. Active engagement with partner countries by the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and our diplomatic network helped secure 145 co-sponsors of the resolution.
The evaluation will look at lessons learnt from the COVID-19 response so our global health architecture is well equipped to respond to future health crises—an example of how the department is helping shape institutions to advance Australia’s national interests.
The department partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) to promote health security and stability in our region. WHO’s operational efforts in the Pacific and Southeast Asia prior to and during the pandemic have supported vulnerable countries to prepare and respond to multiple health emergencies. In response to COVID-19 in our region, Australian funding supported WHO to:
respond to more than 250 requests for assistance
despatch more than 368,109 individual items of personal protective equipment to 16 countries and territories
deploy 41 technical staff to 17 Pacific island countries
coordinate procurement and distribution of diagnostic tests.
WHO also played a critical role in supporting countries in our region to maintain safe, quality essential health services during the pandemic, such as immunisation, maternal and child health, and chronic disease treatment.
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance
Australia’s partnership with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is central to our COVID-19 response in the region. Gavi, with its cutting-edge private-public model, hosts the COVAX Advance Market Commitment, the centrepiece of multilateral efforts to ensure developing countries do not miss out on a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. In June 2020 the Prime Minister announced $300 million core funding for Gavi over the next period (2021–2025), setting a strong foundation for future investments in vaccine access for our region. Our long-term commitment and role as Board Vice Chair helped secure an expansion of eligibility for Pacific island countries to vaccines, including a potential COVID-19 vaccine, supported by Gavi.
Through our partnership with Gavi impressive results have been achieved towards health security in the region. Sixteen countries have been supported with more than USD3 billion in vaccine and health system support since 2000, averting more than 3.2 million deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases. Papua New Guinea will see an additional 400,000 children immunised over the next three years. In January Indonesia announced it will introduce a pneumococcal vaccine with Gavi, protecting four million children a year against pneumonia—currently one of the biggest killers of Indonesian children.
Promoting our interests around the world
We continued to strengthen relationships in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean to advance our Indo-Pacific and global interests.
How we rate our performance*
Our relationships with Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa advance Australia’s interests.
Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 19 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 programs 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and 1.6
*Our assessments are informed by diplomatic reporting, meeting outcomes, agreements and treaties
We rate the department’s performance as ‘on track’ against this performance measure. COVID-19 disrupted our work, but it also provided opportunities to strengthen our partnerships in unprecedented ways.
We advanced Australia’s relationships in Europe, underpinned by significant engagement on strategic challenges and strong common interests, including in negotiating an ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union. We continued to build on our deep relationship with the United Kingdom as it moves toward Brexit and launched work on a bilateral free trade agreement. Given the growing alignment of strategic interests, we advanced engagement with key European partners and the United Kingdom in the Indo-Pacific and on supporting the rules-based international order.
We also worked closely to respond to COVID-19, to promote respect for international law and human rights, to share views about strategic developments in the Indo-Pacific and to address disinformation. We supported many high-level engagements with European countries, including the Prime Minister’s participation in Austria’s Smart COVID-19 Management Leaders’ Group and the Foreign Minister co-hosting with Spain a meeting of female foreign ministers to address the pandemic’s impacts on women and girls.
We ensured early contact across government with the new European Commission and supported high-level visits from member countries. We hosted the inaugural Trade and Investment Dialogue with France, at which trade ministers agreed to cooperate on a range of issues, including infrastructure and energy.
We also facilitated a wide range of other exchanges between ministers during the period. We hosted visits by the UK Foreign and International Trade Secretaries and put in place arrangements, including new bilateral treaties, to help Australian businesses to continue operating after Brexit.
Australia introduced new sanctions to counter Russia’s occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol, renewed existing designations, and supported Ukraine and Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in multilateral forums. We continued our counter-terrorism cooperation with Turkey, a critical partner for Australia’s efforts to mitigate the threat posed by Islamist extremists and foreign terrorist fighters.
We continued to advance Australia’s interests in the Middle East, where ongoing volatility raised risks for regional and international security. We provided advice to government on policy responses, worked with the United States and other partners towards de-escalation, and advocated for freedom of navigation through the International Maritime Security Construct. We helped enhance our trade, investment and commercial links with the Gulf States, including improved market access for Australia’s high-quality agricultural products. We also worked with like-minded countries to urge restraint in northeast Syria.
Under Australia’s contribution to the Global Coalition to Defeat Da’esh, we led political engagement and shaping of coalition strategies. We supported Australia’s ongoing military contributions to the Middle East, including Australian Defence Force training for Iraqi security forces.
We supported the Governor-General’s visit to Iraq in December for a head of state engagement with Iraq’s President, Dr Barham Salih. This visit reinforced Australia’s commitment to Iraq’s stability and recovery. With our assistance, the Governor-General also visited Israel to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. We supported a reciprocal visit to Australia by the Israeli President, further deepening our bilateral ties. Through the Council for Australian–Arab Relations, we built vital people-to-people links.
In December we opened a new chancery compound in Abuja, Nigeria, reflecting Australia’s commitment to relations with Africa’s most populous country and largest economy. We joined Nigeria in senior officials’ consultations in February, the first in seven years. We collaborated with Australian mining companies to address challenges in operating in West Africa, including providing advice and support during COVID-19.
We supported study tours for journalism students between Australia and Morocco, enabling participants to produce more informed cross-cultural reporting on the complexities of Australia–Arab relations.
We continued strong activity to improve human rights outcomes, both directly and through the UN Human Rights Council. Ending the death penalty, preventing sexual and gender-based violence and enhancing women’s, journalists’ and LGBTI rights were consistent elements of our diplomatic representations.
We collaborated with African members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), such as South Africa and Mauritius, to advance discussions on the sustainable use of ocean resources and trade and investment facilitation, for example by hosting in Mauritius an IORA meeting on Blue Carbon financing.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, we deepened our trade, investment, people-to-people and education links. Brazil and Colombia became top five source countries for international students. The Peru–Australia Free Trade Agreement (PAFTA) entered into force, removing barriers for some key service industries and providing new access for our sugar, dairy and grains farmers. A new Bilateral Investment Agreement with Uruguay will protect and promote investment opportunities. We worked with the region’s Cairns Group members in the WTO to address trade-distorting agricultural subsidies. Australia, Brazil and Guatemala cooperated closely on our respective WTO challenges to India’s sugar subsidies. With Chile as APEC host, we helped deliver strong outcomes in that forum, including on marine waste, illegal fishing and women’s economic engagement. With like-minded countries in the HRC and other international forums, we worked for the return of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela.
Soft power and building influence
Soft power is the ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others across the globe through the power of ideas and attraction. By leveraging soft power strengths, we can advance Australia’s global reputation and prosperity.
How we rate our performance*
Soft power initiatives advance Australia’s interests and influence.
Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 20, PBS 2019–20 program 1.6 p. 34 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 programs 1.1 and 1.6
*Our assessments are informed by a global alumni survey, sector and community engagement (sports advisory council), program reach through online delivery and growth in social media followers
We rate our performance as ‘on track’ against this performance measure.
During the Australian bushfires our diplomatic network mobilised to amplify and promote Australia’s reputation and economy, including showcasing our world-class international tourism, education and exports industries. We repurposed numerous events, including G’day USA and Australia Day public diplomacy events, to project key messages and promote affected sectors.
In response to COVID-19 we dramatically increased social media use to provide additional information and support to Australians overseas and highlight the department’s unprecedented crisis response. At its peak in March, our global social media content was viewed more than 322 million times and elicited more than 8.5 million public interactions. Since the onset of COVID-19 in January, the department’s social media network published an average of 7,809 posts per month—a 49 per cent increase on the same period in 2019. During this same period, our social media following increased by 17 per cent (more than 581,000 followers), bringing our total social media audience to 4.04 million followers at 30 June.
We promoted Australian excellence, creativity and values with coordinated communication and public diplomacy delivered across our global network. We took our highly successful Australia now program to the 10 countries of ASEAN. Australia now ASEAN 2019 enabled approximately 350 Australians to demonstrate their excellence in technology, design, sport, film and performing arts, and start-up skills at more than 250 individual events. COVID-19 disrupted activities in 2020, but we continued planning for online and future events.
The department also purchased Australian products, particularly from bushfire-affected areas, to support Australia now.
We marked the UNESCO 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages by supporting around 20 Indigenous performers, academics and others working in Indigenous languages to participate in overseas events. We also brought the Soul Harvest Gospel Choir from Vanuatu to perform in Nakanamanga language alongside the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir at the 2019 Desert Song Festival in Alice Springs.
We strengthened people-to-people links with the Pacific through the Australia Awards Women’s Leadership Initiative training and mentoring programs. Moving online in response to COVID-19 enabled us to enhance support and expand the original cohort of 67 Pacific women scholars to include an additional 91 Pacific scholars through the online LeadershipConnect 2020 program.
A survey of 6,300 Australia Awards alumni (1996–2016) found 96 per cent used their Australian studies to improve professional outcomes, and their views of Australia were more positive as a result of their scholarship experience. Initiatives engaging our global alumni of approximately three million strengthened Australia’s global connections and influence by bolstering business and people-to-people links. These initiatives showcased the positive experiences of students and Australia’s worldclass education services.
We used Australia’s strengths as a sporting nation to connect with people and communities around the world through our international sports exchange programs, PacificAus Sports (2019–2023) and the Australian Sports Partnerships Program (2018–2028). We:
supported regional sports with a focus on gender equality and community cohesion
offered pathways for Pacific athletes to play and train in Australia
supported the establishment of the government’s Sports Diplomacy Advisory Council
played an active role in Australia’s successful campaign to co-host the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 with New Zealand.
We enhanced public and official understanding of Australian foreign and trade policy through the department’s Documents on Australian Foreign Policy (DAFP) series. We published DAFP: Australia and the World, 1920–1930, by Professor James Cotton, and a monograph by Dr Bob Bowker (ANU): Australia, Menzies and Suez. We also supported the Australian Institute for International Affairs’ publication of India, the United States, Australia and the Difficult Birth of Bangladesh, by Ric Smith AO PSM.
Protocol services for the diplomatic corps
Our partners from around the world are represented in Australia by the diplomatic and consular corps. Providing them with immunities, privileges, security and courtesies under the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations is essential to good relations with their countries and ensuring reciprocal treatment of Australian officials overseas.
How we rate our performance*
The diplomatic and consular corps posted or accredited to Australia are satisfied with the delivery of protocol services.
Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 20, PBS 2019–20 program 1.1 p. 28 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 program 1.1
*Our assessments are informed by the results of a survey of the diplomatic corps and feedback
The department worked closely with foreign diplomatic and consular missions during the COVID-19 pandemic. We facilitated:
outbound repatriation flights
transits of foreign nationals through Australian airports to enable their return
complex visa issues
movement to and from exit points for foreign officials during border closures.
Our responsiveness and cooperation with the diplomatic corps enabled Australia to leverage support overseas for our own consular efforts. We rate our performance against this measure as ‘achieved’.
In its second annual survey to assess our performance, the department received responses from 93 of the 108 diplomatic missions in Canberra. Results showed 98 per cent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied that protocol services supported their mission’s ability to perform their functions. Responses on the quality and timeliness of information provided to the corps were overwhelmingly positive, with our intensive communication campaigns during the bushfire and COVID-19 crises attracting praise. We used a WhatsApp group comprising foreign heads of mission in Australia to get messages to the corps quickly during fast-moving situations.
Helping foreign citizens in Australia get home
As well as assisting Australians at home and overseas, we supported repatriation efforts by the diplomatic and consular corps in Australia, when travel restrictions and visa issues complicated their nationals’ ability to return during COVID-19. This involved intensive liaison and negotiation with Australian federal and state authorities and our overseas network to enable visitors and temporary entrants to reach exit points and depart. A series of urgent compassionate cases required careful and prompt management.
Among the foreign nationals we assisted were over 20,000 foreign passengers and crew caught on 23 cruise ships in Australian waters at the outbreak of the pandemic. This complex operation was undertaken against fast-moving developments and different requirements in each jurisdiction, including for crew members who had contracted COVID-19. Several foreign crew sadly lost their lives while in Australia, but the overwhelming majority made their way safely home on special flights or by commercial means supported by the department.
We also worked across government to enable thousands of international travellers to transit Australian airports from New Zealand and the Pacific.
Throughout the pandemic, we communicated regularly with foreign government representatives in Australia to alert them to new developments and arrangements affecting their consular work.