With the close of 2016 comes the end of New Zealand’s tenure on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Considering the campaign to be elected to this position by other countries began in 2004, our two-year term on the most powerful body within the United Nations has seemed relatively brief. With a significant amount of our international diplomacy budget spent to get this seat, the public must now consider what the return on our investment was.
Our campaign to get on the Council was a twofold approach. We argued the need to bring reform to a broken United Nations system, and to represent the small nations of the world at the large table. The UNSC is a relic of the post war powers that has frozen the 1945 status quo. 15 members are seated on the Council, of which 10 are elected (like New Zealand) for 2 year terms at a time. The remaining five seats are occupied by the victory club of World War Two, (Great Britain, the United States, France, Russia and China) who retain permanent status.
The privileged permanent five (P5) have multiple benefits, with the strongest being the ability to veto decisions of the Security Council. This veto has blocked United Nations’ action in conflicts like Syria and Panama. To say this is stopping the powerful countries from still acting would be incorrect, though. The obvious example of the 21st Century is the United States’ ‘coalition of the willing’ who entered Iraq and Afghanistan without the authority or backing of the United Nations. The P5 is also navigating and influencing conflicts, with most recent examples just this month in Syria’s ongoing civil war, whether they have the United Nations backing or not, considering their interests and entitlements to be greater than any mandate a Security Council could give.
The argument that the powerful are remaining powerful simply because they have written the rules is not without its merits, though it does not answer the question of how to change the rules. Multiple countries campaign, like New Zealand, to change the rules yet lack the tools or political currency to implement potential changes.
With big players playing boardroom politics, reform of the council is a consistent, almost necessary promise for many countries campaigning to get onto the Security Council. The New Zealand Security Council website and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade stresses New Zealand’s position against this system. However, realistically, was there actually a chance of changing this? Multiple countries have advocated for reform; yet rebuffs by the P5 show that the status quo will not change as long as they control the international rulebook.
Coming out of our time on the council, can New Zealand argue a contribution to greater transparency on the council? It is arguable that the council is still continuing, and actually probably increasing, steps to hide its business from the public, for example by changing how it structures its agenda. The Security Council looks much the same as when New Zealand started its term. If New Zealand was aiming for a historical reform legacy from our term, then we may be found lacking. This impression should be altered though by the knowledge that this desire for reform and transparency was not our true primary goal.
New Zealand has firmly tried to cement its reputation in the international sector as the small state that punches above its weight. From being an original member of the United Nations, to the adoption of the nuclear free stance, New Zealand has tried to continue a trend of being a small state with a big presence.
To sustain that reputation, action has to be taken. While grand-standing on issues like nuclear use might have helped gained us this reputation, it is the consistent actions over time that have allowed us to keep this reputation. Our neighbours in the Pacific (who themselves have never had a term on the Security Council) generally keep us in high esteem because we are proactive, or at least perceived to be, on so many issues. Having earned this reputation, we must consistently continue to legitimise least we lose the leading status we have.
New Zealand made a public declaration at the start of its presidency of the Security Council in September 2016 that Syria and North Korea would be high on the agenda. The president of the Security Council determines the agenda, having discretionary power to help push issues to the forefront. In our term as president resolutions were passed relating to international fly zones, and in September, on nuclear proliferation (noting that North Korea had conducted another test). New Zealand was seen to be an active voice of reason guiding the Council through serious issues that could have implications for smaller states. Whether these items would have made the agenda regardless is debatable, but the more significant point is that New Zealand can claim attachment to them.
Our opinionated term on the Security Council has cemented the idea that we are prepared to state our cause. The lack of effective change is unfortunate, but not the judging criteria. Realistically, no country outside of the P5 of the Security Council has the chance of changing the rigged system. Though there are multiple petitions to change the founding rules of the council, it is a long term game that no country could judge a two-year placement on and genuinely expect that result. Though the rhetoric is strong, real political gamesmanship requires realistic goals to be successful.
What is more important for our international relations is to show that we can and should be in the same room as the big players, but not compromise our reputation as a champion of the small states. New Zealand ran the risk internationally of not representing the states that elected it. In the international court of public opinion, it seems we have retained our reputation, even if there was a lack of real action or consequence. The consistent dialogue and posturing of beliefs gives the impression of standing strong, even if it may be a source of bemusement for the bigger powers.
In a climate of scrutiny of public spending, judging our term on the Security Council should be considered a maintenance cost. Whether New Zealand achieved anything of note for the international sector is debatable. In terms of our own goals, heading out of a turbulent 2016 filled with unexpected actions, we have secured our reputation in an insecure world.