Two Years to Demonstrate Our Independent Status

Grant Duncan

The last time New Zealand held a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the Rwandan genocide happened. During March and April 1994, the Security Council failed to heed warnings of what became “one of the darkest chapters in human history,” as UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson recently called it. One million were slaughtered within 100 days, and we can only wonder how many of those lives may have been saved if the UN had acted more promptly. Thanks to our diplomats, however, New Zealand can at least hold its head up today. The then Permanent Representative of New Zealand, Colin Keating, introduced a resolution in early May 1994 to boost UN troop numbers and to give them a mandate to protect civilians. It took a month for the Council to agree, however.

New Zealand is seen as an independent actor that promotes humanitarian causes and participates in peacekeeping forces. And this is the face that most New Zealanders wish to project to the world. Membership of the Security Council gives our government the opportunity to enhance that reputation by supporting conflict resolution and non-aggressive humanitarian action.

But is New Zealand really all that independent? Thanks to Edward Snowden, we are now acquainted with the close cooperation of New Zealand in the so-called 5-Eyes intelligence network.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has put on a show of independence by saying that his government is considering ‘options’ regarding a contribution to the latest round of violence by western powers in the Middle East. Training Iraqi troops is one such ‘option,’ we are told. To give our government credit, it has made donations to programmes for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. And, given that Iraqi forces have been known to simply flee from the insurgent Islamic State’s well-armed and fast-moving militias, maybe they do need some training.

Key claims that aiding the western forces against IS would not increase the risk of a terror attack in New Zealand. And that may be right. He goes further, however, to label IS a ‘terrorist group.’ We can’t let a ‘terrorist group’ determine whether we stand up to them, nor allow our foreign policy to be ‘dictated by people who are raining carnage on all parts of the world,’ he said. The word ‘terrorist’ evokes the Maggie Thatcher line that ‘we will not bow to terrorism.’ And so aggression becomes the ineluctable conclusion, as the option of ‘doing nothing’ would signify that we are cowards.

IS itself is not a global threat despite the rhetoric. And Key’s narrow and self-legitimating logic is unconvincing. He is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Instead, Mr Key should explain to us whom he believes will benefit from this latest western intervention into the Middle East.

So, who does benefit? Quietly cheering for the air strikes will no doubt be Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad who, not long ago, was targeted for ‘regime change.’ The western allies are no longer threatening him. Instead, they are attacking his enemies. Equally pleased are Iraq’s Shia militiamen who look forward to taking the fight to their Sunni enemies. Meanwhile, the Kurdish militias see the present mayhem as an opportunity to fight for the break up of Iraq into three nations, one of which they hope will be called Kurdistan. Turkey won’t like that, given their history of suppressing Turkish Kurds.

Above all, IS itself benefits from being attacked. Think of IS as businessmen for a moment, rather than fundamentalist lunatics. Think of them as filling a power vacuum left by two ineffective and unjust states. Their enterprise has made them cash-rich and well armed, and they control oil fields. A new magnet for disaffected Muslims dreaming of martyrdom was created the day that an American journalist was publicly beheaded in order to provoke Uncle Sam into yet another rage of misdirected violence. Attacking IS will effectively be supporting one set of extremists against an opposing set of extremists, with little regard for harm to unarmed people caught in the middle. It will advance the ideological cause of IS and maintain its influx of cash and fighters. But, like other western leaders, Mr Key can’t admit that the allied campaign against IS will be futile and counterproductive. To do so would make him look weak to his domestic audience.

Take the civil war in eastern Ukraine for another example. Thus far, New Zealand has taken the rather lame policy of travel-bans against (unnamed) Russians in reaction to the annexation of Crimea. Russia lays a historical claim on Crimea. And, as Kiev was leaning towards the EU, and potentially towards NATO, the Russians must have been anxious to secure their Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol. But Mr Putin’s ‘theft’ of the peninsula was unlawful

Many western analysts compare Putin with Hitler (Sudetenland and all that); and they see the pro-EU side of Kiev as the victim of an authoritarian regime in Moscow. Hence the independence struggle in the largely Russian-speaking eastern provinces has not been presented in the humanitarian terms that the attacks on Gaza or the barbarities of IS have been.

The western media were temporarily re-awoken to Ukraine when MH17 was shot down on a flight-path over the rebel-held province of Donetsk. Nearly 300 passengers and crew were killed. As if that were not sickening enough, the killings of unarmed civilians, mostly due to random shelling by Ukrainian forces, went on unabated in the surrounding districts. The equivalent of twelve or more MH17s have died in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. While the Russians are guilty of fuelling the conflict by allowing fighters and armaments to cross the border into the Lugansk and Donetsk provinces, the local people live in terror of the Ukrainian army and air force that have bombed them on a regular basis. In addition, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry has supported the so-called Right Sector militia – an ultra-nationalist, neo-fascist group that regards itself as fighting for an independent Ukraine.

Most Russian-speaking Ukrainians didn’t really want to secede, and certainly didn’t ask for a civil war. But hundreds of thousands have had to flee their homes nonetheless, either across the border into Russia or west towards safer cities such as Kharkiv or Kiev. The greatest threat to their lives is the armed forces of the very government whose fundamental duty is to protect its citizens, not kill them.

As an agent of humanitarian action and an independent voice on the UNSC, then, would New Zealand diplomats work with Russia (which has a veto on the Council) as well the western powers, to insist on the protection of Ukrainian civilians, and to seek a permanent political resolution? So far, we have not seen any public statements from Wellington that suggests they would do so. Even on humanitarian matters such as Ebola we have been slow to act. Apparently we are now considering sending a medical contingent to West Africa – why the delay?

If New Zealand is to be a genuinely strong, independent, humanitarian voice in the next two years on the Security Council, then Wellington needs to grow a backbone. The Prime Minister has failed to justify morally the intervention in Iraq and Syria. Refusing to contribute to the violence there could be a sign of courage, not weakness. And seeking ways to end the Ukrainian civil war, and to prosecute the associated war crimes, would be a sign of our independence.


Grant Duncan
About the author

Grant Duncan

Associate Professor - Massey University
Dr. Grant Duncan is an Associate Professor in the School of People, Environment and Planning, at Massey University. Professor Duncan teaches public policy and political theory at the Albany campus of Massey University and is a regular media commentator on New Zealand politics. He is a social scientist and author of many academic publications on social policy, public policy and public management in New Zealand.