In October 2014 New Zealand was elected to a two-year term as a temporary member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), representing the “Western Europe and Others” regional voting bloc. With Turkey and Spain as New Zealand’s main rivals for the position, the win had as much to do with concerns about the erratic behavior of Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Spain’s role in the Eurozone crisis as it did with the merits of New Zealand’s case as an independent representative of small states. On January 1, 2015 New Zealand took its seat on the 15 member body for the fourth time, having previously sat on the Council in 1954-55, 1966 and 1993-94.
New Zealand prioritized several issues in its campaign, both with regards to the UN itself as well as specific international policy areas. Institutionally, it advocates reform of the UNSC veto mechanism held by the five permanent council members (China, France, Russia, the US and the UK, known as the P5).Opposition to P5 veto powers has been a foundation of New Zealand’s position within the UN since its creation, to which was more recently added the call for reconsideration of P5 membership in light of changing times and geopolitical realities.
Substantively, the focus was on the Syrian crisis, especially humanitarian relief; the Israel-Palestinian conflict; non-proliferation; and airline security. The Syrian crisis is arguably the most compelling and intractable conflict in the world today, so was bound to be on the agenda. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and quest for a two state solution is equally intractable but even more long-lived. Non-proliferation has long been a mainstay of New Zealand foreign policy and acquired renewed importance because of the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction by state and non-state actors in Syria and Iraq. Aviation security continues to be of particular concern to tourism-dependent states such as New Zealand.
New Zealand chaired the UNSC twice during its term; in July 2015 and September 2016. Much of its work on the UNSC was effective in support of consensus. 108 resolutions were passed during its tenure, most of them unanimously. However, three vetoes were invoked during this period, all by Russia. Two of these occurred during New Zealand’s first time as UNSC chair, in July 2015, when Russia vetoed resolutions on “the situations” in Bosnia Herzegovina (July 8th) and the Ukraine (July 29th). The third happened shortly after New Zealand relinquished its second UNSC chair, after many attempts to draft a compromise resolution on the Middle East and numerous failures to draft resolutions on halting the Syrian conflict. This occurred on October 8, 2016 when Russia, acting as Chair, vetoed a broad resolution for ending conflict in the Middle East (including the war in Yemen). The relationship between the vetoes and New Zealand’s initiatives while UNSC Chair cannot be discounted.
There were some good moments when New Zealand held the UNSC Chair. A highlight was resolution 2231 (2015) which unanimously endorsed the Iran nuclear accord. Also in July 2015 New Zealand managed to secure support for resolutions on Cyprus, Iraq, Somalia, and non-proliferation . In September 2016 resolutions followed on peace and security, nuclear non-proliferation, terrorism, Liberia and on judicial appointments to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia . New Zealand pushed hard for humanitarian relief in Syria and for the millions of people displaced by that conflict, something that helped ease the way for the principals involved to agree to periodic ceasefires, humanitarian corridors and UN refugee re-settlement projects in countries such as Jordan.
The record is mixed regarding the issues that New Zealand brought as priorities to its tenure on the UNSC. It did not advance the cause of P5 or veto reform. It did not advance viable solutions to the Syrian and Israel-Palestine stalemates. It did lend support to further sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear testing, ongoing UN chemical weapons inspections in Syria and measures improving international cooperation against nuclear proliferation and terrorism, including in the field of airline security.
While New Zealand tried to make a difference while on the UNSC, its moment in the sun left little in the way of durable policy legacies or international impact. Resolutions do not always translate into concrete action and many of those passed during the time New Zealand was on the Council suffered that fate. In fact, viewed from afar, other than serving as an excellent school for diplomatic staff attached to the New Zealand UN mission, New Zealand’s presence on the UNSC was more that of an eager participant than that of a diplomatic leader. New Zealand played no worse and in most instances an equal or better role than the other members of its 2015-2016 temporary member cohort of Angola, Malaysia, Spain and Venezuela.
The reasons for New Zealand’s lack of impact rested on several unforgiving externalities inherent in contemporary international affairs. Some of these are systemic, and others were circumstantial.
Circumstantially, former Prime Minister Helen Clark’s failed 2016 candidacy for the UN Secretary General’s position complicated New Zealand’s role on the UNSC. Contrary to what might have been expected, New Zealand’s membership in the Council conferred no special advantage on Clark and forced the Kiwi delegation to tread lightly in their advocacy lest it alienate potential supporters of her candidacy. It may have restrained New Zealand from pushing hard on UNSC agenda items that could undermine P5 support for the Clark candidacy. This softly-softly approach was apparent when New Zealand relinquished its second UNSC Chair to Russia on the days of two UNSC straw polls on the six finalists for the job. That was unnecessary but the New Zealand delegation did not want to give the appearance of a conflict of interest.
New Zealand found it difficult to secure support on contentious issues from post-colonial states that were aid dependent on their colonial masters or new foreign patrons. Kiwi diplomats were told that they had support for resolutions and initiatives, only to find that some post-colonial states voted otherwise, ostensibly after being pressured by their patrons. This undermined New Zealand’s attempts to become a leader of small state voting blocs.
New Zealand’s attempts to straddle the fence in its bilateral relations with the US and China—trading preferentially with China but serving as a first tier military and intelligence partner of the US—also undermined its ability to take principled stands against rival P5 members.
Systemically, New Zealand encountered the traditional problems of being a Lilliputian in a world of giants. In times of international stability and systemic equilibrium in which conflict is minimized and a status quo is maintained, small states may have disproportionate influence. However, in times of international instability and systemic conflict, small states find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to great power rivalries and the adjudication of international disputes. In the former instance, soft power can find a voice in international discourse. As for the latter hard power speaks loudest.
That is the case of the contemporary international system. It is presently in the process of moving from a unipolar to a multipolar balance of power that has yet to find a point of re-equilibration, and during times of international transition conflict is the foremost systems regulator. This is particularly true of the current moment, where there has been a breakdown of international norms and rules evident in the illegal behavior of state and non-state actors involving systematic violations of international law, war crimes, crimes against humanity and use of prohibited weapons and tactics in the face of the international community’s inability to enforce universal norms when breached. No matter what New Zealand did to promote the rule of international law and adherence to international norms, or promote the principled positions of small states as it saw them to be, it was thwarted by the actions of larger powers that chose self-advantage in non-compliance with international norms and in perpetuating conflicts.
Ultimately, although New Zealand very much tried to play the role of honest broker and independent voice of small states while on the UNSC, it found itself in the position of an old man on horseback fruitlessly thrusting his lance at immovable features of the extant institutional terrain.