John Key is off to New York for the annual Leaders Week and the UN’s 70th anniversary. With a third of New Zealand’s two-year Security Council stint already complete, it’s timely to determine whether a distinct and consistent New Zealand view has been emerging on the Council.
Undertaking this assessment means getting through a veritable pile of statements which New Zealand’s representatives have made since January. This is a rare pleasure because the Key and McCully years have been lean ones for the production of declaratory foreign policy. At an average of six statements per month, New Zealand is on target in 2015 to exceed the total of Security Council statements made in the previous six years. Of course a very significant increase was always to be expected given New Zealand’s new (albeit temporary) role. But the five statements delivered already by New Zealand’s Foreign Minister himself outnumber the total number of his speeches to all venues in 2013 and 2014 which can be found on the Beehive archive.
The first is New Zealand’s clear commitment to a strong and active Security Council. This may seem a self-evident position, but while some sovereign states are wary of a Council getting too involved in their affairs, there is almost no sign of this caution from the Key government. In the case of the Middle East peace process, Wellington wants the Council to ‘use its moral and legal authority, and the practical tools at its disposal, to shift the dynamics’. Regular briefings received on Libya are not a ‘compliance exercise’ for the Council, but an opportunity to get more active.
Secondly, New Zealand wants that extra activity to apply in particular to situations before conflicts get hideous. ‘The Council’, said Mr McCully in February, ‘has a completely inadequate focus on Conflict Prevention, and a huge focus on peacekeeping’. The observation that UN peacekeeping missions are often inadequately resourced and are sent without sufficiently strong mandates may be an easy get out of jail card for New Zealand’s stellar shortage of involvement in such missions today. But what McCully referred to in that statement as ‘the responsibility to prevent’ can easily be construed as a call for action that is intrusive as well as anticipatory.
The obvious objections to such an ambition (on the grounds of non-interference) would clearly make some of the five veto holders even more determined to hang on to what they have. But New Zealand’s third principle is that the veto is an enemy of the strong and active Security Council the world needs. Veto wielding is cited as an obstacle to necessary action on events in Ukraine, including in attempts to develop an accountability process for the MH17 aircraft tragedy. In New Zealand’s view it has also stopped the Council from helping the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Principles four and five are in line with this rejection of the veto. The importance of international equality is one of these. New Zealand’s representatives have not only argued that ‘all 15 Council members should be able to contribute fully’ to its deliberations. They have called for all parties to respect their legal obligations in conflicts including in such places as Afghanistan and Yemen. New Zealand also seems to want states and non-state actors to live up to similar obligations to protect civilians in conflict situations and the rights of religious minorities, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable parties in conflict zones (including children and their caregivers who are so often women) need to be treated with more equal importance.
The other is New Zealand’s insistence on the importance of collective action. New Zealand’s representatives frequently call for integrated approaches to the resolution of conflict (where security responses are only part of the picture). They put the post-conflict problems in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and elsewhere down to a lack of national unity in these countries. And the agreement on a resolution following fresh reports of the use of chemical weapons was ‘an all-too-rare example of collective Council action on the Syrian conflict.’
The sixth component of New Zealand’s Security Council doctrine is as strenuous commitment to diplomacy as the main means for the resolution of complex disagreements. And the cardinal example cited in this respect is the nuclear agreement with Iran, which received unanimous Security Council support during New Zealand’s initial presidency. In the Minister’s eyes, this is a model for what might be hoped for in other Middle East problems including in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Iran deal, he said in July, shows that ‘even seemingly intractable issues can be resolved through diplomacy and dialogue.’
This is an optimistic view at the very least. The Iran agreement is so fresh and has yet to be tested. Moreover it was not struck between Teheran and its (unhappy) near neighbours in the Arab world but with external great powers. It is not clear how that formula works when the real negotiations need to take place between Tel Aviv and Ramallah or in the midst of the internal violence between factions in Syria or Yemen. And as Gerard van Bohemen pointed out soon after his installation as New Zealand’s permanent UN representative, ‘If the other party doesn’t want to talk to you, its very difficult to be an engaged participant.’
But the overriding message from New Zealand it is that states need to work inclusively, early and cooperatively to develop collective responses to the world’s trouble spots. They need to leave their narrow self-interests and disagreements at the door in New York. This suggests a deep commitment to strong international machinery and to collective diplomacy in service of the principles of collective security, and a desire for the strong to restrain their competition in the interests of the weak. It is designed as a wake-up call to the Security Council to live up to the promises that the international community instilled in it seventy years ago. Then, as now, compromises were made to the realities of power and the balance of opinion. A sense of prudence is there after the debacle over Sudan in the view that the Security Council should not refer cases to the International Criminal Court if it is not committed ‘to support the implementation of that referral’. But the overall picture is of New Zealand’s impatience with these realities.
At least two conclusions can be drawn from this assessment. The first is that New Zealand’s campaign promise to hold the Security Council to account and demand stronger action has been translated into its public representations in New York. Of course some may think these expectations are unrealistic. Others may wonder about the conversations that go on behind the scenes: after all diplomacy is a job for pragmatists more than it is for visionaries. But on the whole, the public performance has been consistent with that earlier billing.
The second is that any notion of a fundamental philosophical divide on foreign policy between centre-right and centre-left in New Zealand seems more illusory than real. At least in its public statements, there is a good deal in what the Key government’s representatives are saying in New York that chimes with New Zealand’s internationalist credentials built up in earlier periods. And this reinforcement of older views helps take the discussion of New Zealand’s external policy beyond the question of free trade agreements the Asia-Pacific. For that at least we should be grateful for the spell New Zealand is having on the Security Council.
Photo credit: NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade