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New Zealand: Getting Around the Security Council Table

01 Jan 2015
Terence O’Brien
Jim McLay, Permanent Representative of New Zealand to the United Nations. Image Credit: Flickr (UN Geneva) Creative Commons.

Coinciding with the start of New Zealand’s term on the UN Security Council, former Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Terence O’Brien, reflects upon the challenges that face New Zealand during the year ahead.  

New Zealand’s success in securing a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2015–16 is a significant foreign policy accomplishment. For only the third time in the 70 years of the United Nations’ existence, New Zealand will assume a seat at the council. We take our place at a precarious moment internationally. A combination of deep-seated political tensions in the Middle East coincides with brutal divisions inside Islam. Our campaign for membership emphasised a New Zealand record for conscientious international involvement and a capacity for independent judgment. Those qualities will now be tested.

The international community once more agonises over how or whether to intervene in this latest chapter in Middle Eastern perdition. Confronted by the prospect of an open-ended conflict, and hard on the heels of an unprecedented prolonged commitment in Afghanistan, New Zealand has rightly taken time to formulate a response in keeping with our means. A final decision one way or another should not be taken before New Zealand assumes its Security Council seat and absorbs the full magnitude of the council workload.

We must remain clear in our own minds that a decision to commit SAS troops, no matter how much embroidered by claims to a training or protection role, is a decision to enter combat. A final New Zealand decision should not be founded in expediency but be conditioned by just how wise it is to participate militarily.

The New Zealand capacity for independent foreign policy thinking on the Security Council will, therefore, be severely tested. It is important to us that international legitimacy and moral principle of any joint international action is preserved to the extent that is achievable.

Further, the workload for New Zealand on the Security Council will be inordinate. There are in fact some 53 country and regional issues preoccupying the council with varying degrees of urgency and complexity. Unforeseeable crises can, of course, add to that list.

At the same time, New Zealand will be required to keep up with the pace of activity inside the wider multilateral system beyond the Security Council. International economic issues, including trade and investment liberalisation, are obvious priorities. But refugees, child protection, climate change, disaster response as well as health pandemics like Ebola are areas where New Zealand must remain more widely and constructively engaged, alongside Security Council responsibilities.

On climate change, the New Zealand decision to distance itself from the second Kyoto Protocol has resulted in diminution of its mediator role in international negotiations. On disarmament New Zealand will be the only member on the Security Council of the six-nation so-called New Agenda Coalition (NAC) dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The need more generally for New Zealand to retain good lines of diplomatic communication during 2015 – 16 beyond the council itself has larger relevance. Given the Security Council’s preoccupation with the immensely complex issues arising from ISIS in the Middle East and its wider implications, it will be important to retain close interaction with those Asian countries with significant Muslim populations — Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world), Malaysia and India, for example — both in New York and through our diplomatic missions in capitals in order to share perceptions and understanding.

Malaysia has also been elected to the Security Council for 2015–16 and will assume chairmanship of ASEAN in 2015. These happy coincidences provide the opportunity for appropriate New Zealand collusion with ASEAN on Security Council business. It is important, above all, that New Zealand multiplies its points of reference for the intricate challenges presented by radical Islam, and does not depend solely on the judgments and interests of Atlantic powers alone, important as those are.

Amidst all of this New Zealand’s stated objectives for its Security Council tenure are ambitious. We are committed to pursuing reform of the use of the veto by permanent Security Council members (P5) and to change in the composition of the council and to secure fairer rotation for non-permanent members. Veto reform is not a new proposal, and ideas about membership were scripted last time New Zealand served, to no avail.

In the current climate pursuit of veto reform must be carefully even-handed. It is perfectly reasonable for New Zealand to deplore the prospect of vetoes by Russia and China, both for their own reasons, of Security Council collective action on Syria. It is equally regrettable that the council conspicuously failed to adjudicate the latest savage outbreak of Israel–Palestine enmity in Gaza. A continual American veto exists over council decisions on this longstanding tragedy with its obvious connections to radical jihadism of ISIS and its individual foreign sympathisers. Any suggested New Zealand formula for veto reform that might appear to condone the use of the veto by certain permanent Security Council members but not others would be fraught with an unconscionable double standard.

New Zealand’s external interests have shifted, particularly since our last Security Council tenure in 1993 – 94. Institutionally, diplomatically and economically, our relationships in the region have now magnified appreciably in the past twenty years, no more so than with China. There is a mild irony, shared with Australia, in the fact that we remain categorised inside the UN electoral system in New York as a member of the ‘West European and other group’ (WEOG) while the balance of our external interest is shifting elsewhere. It will be an exceptional experience for New Zealand to deliberate issues of global security on the Security Council in the presence of both China and the United States, given our status as a friend but not as a formal ally of either. That amplifies the challenge for our diplomatic dexterity. We do not want to be forced to choose sides. This may at certain times, however, become unavoidable, and New Zealand will then perforce rely upon the intrinsic quality of both New Zealand bilateral relationships and the skill of professional diplomacy to navigate a way ahead.

Terence O’Brien is a senior fellow in the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. A former diplomat, he sat on the Security Council during New Zealand’s previous tenure in 1993–94.

An extended version of this article was originally published in the January/February edition of the New Zealand International Review. It is republished with permission.