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What will New Zealand do with its UN Security Council seat?

What will New Zealand do with its UN Security Council seat?

New Zealand's decisive victory at the UN last month,  winning a Security Council seat for two years from January 2015, surprised even the quietly confident. Securing 145 votes out of 193 in the first round of voting assured New Zealand the two-thirds majority required to get onto the Security Council, where it will be joined by Spain, Venezuela, Angola and Malaysia as non-permanent members.

New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key addressing the UN General Assembly, 2009.

New Zealand's 10-year campaign to win a seat on the Security Council began in 2004 under the Labour Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark, now head of the UN Development Program. The seat was secured by Prime Minister John Key's recently re-elected National Government with strong bipartisan support.

New Zealand's campaign message was clear and consistent: the country is a trusted and independent advocate for non-permanent member states seeking a voice at the Security Council, with a proven record of a human rights-based approach and a commitment to negotiation and dialogue. Supporting this message was a low budget but diplomatically intensive strategy led by Prime Minister Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who courted both large and small states while promoting principled foreign policy over the cheque-book diplomacy tactics of the its richer rivals, Spain and Turkey. 

The strategy was successful. Now the hard work begins and New Zealand's capabilities will be tested. Can New Zealand translate its unambiguous campaign message into a sustainable and effective strategy on the Security Council? [fold]

This is going to be challenging given the reforms New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has undergone in recent years. In 2012 MFAT sacked around 300 staff and a further 600 had to reapply for their positions. Critics such as Labour's Phil Goff, foreign minister in the Clark Government, claimed the reforms would 'undermine the ability of the ministry to carry out its basic functions of advancing and guarding New Zealand's security and trade interests abroad.' Similar concerns have been raised in response to New Zealand's win at the UN Security Council.

New Zealand's stance throughout its campaign was that it would pursue two agendas if elected. First, New Zealand would act as an advocate for non-Security Council member states to have input into Council deliberations that affect them. Of the 193 UN member states, 102 are small states with little influence. Key called New Zealand's win 'a victory for small states' and McCully suggested that by defeating Spain and Turkey in the first round, New Zealand had 're-written the narrative' in a David versus Goliath-type scenario. 

Secondly, New Zealand has advanced a two-fold approach for reform of the Security Council itself. New Zealand has been highly critical of the Security Council in recent speeches at the UN General Assembly. It has argued that the Security Council has become paralysed by the permanent five members (P5), who pursue their national interests, and that this has been a key obstacle to addressing the crises in Ukraine, Syria and the rise of ISIS in Iraq. New Zealand is advocating reform of the veto system suggesting the use of voluntary restraint by permanent members in exercising the veto.

French President Francois Hollande first floated the idea in 2013 of a 'gentleman's agreement' between the P5 that, in cases of mass atrocities, the veto would not be used. Agreement on veto restraint would be voluntary and non-binding but would require defining 'mass atrocities.' (Let's recall the game of semantics in Washington over whether the Rwandan genocide constituted a genocide or, as it was famously put, 'a genocide-like event.')

New Zealand also supports a reform initiative that calls for the expansion of the Security Council through the creation of six intermediate seats which would be held by non-permanent states for five years. These seats would be contested by larger states and not on the basis of regional representation. Importantly, states would be able to hold consecutive terms. This could have considerable appeal to countries such as Brazil, India, Germany and Japan. To offset the creation of a second tier, New Zealand is recommending the expansion of the two-year rotation of non-permanent seats to ensure balance and greater representation among smaller states, who often struggle to be elected onto the Council.

New Zealand's Security Council term is also a critical opportunity to participate in Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's recently announced review of peace support operations. This will be the first major review of peace support operations since the Brahimi Report in 2000. Ban Ki Moon's review will be chaired by a strong supporter of New Zealand's campaign for the UN Security Council seat, former Timorese President Dr Jose Ramos Horta, who recently held the position of Secretary-General's Special Representative and Head of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau. The review panel will examine both peace support operations and special political missions and will submit recommendations to the UN General Assembly in September 2015. 

This will be an opportunity for New Zealand to capitalise on expertise developed over almost two decades of regional interventions in Bougainville, Timor Leste, the Solomon Islands, Afghanistan and the Middle East. New Zealand has a unique niche capability in 'targeted interventions' with hybrid peacebuilding missions such as the one in Bougainville.

The coming two years on the Security Council will also be an opportunity for New Zealand to champion issues which received less attention during the campaign. This includes climate change, which is a central issue for New Zealand's Pacific Island neighbours. The collective support of the Pacific Islands Forum was critical for New Zealand's campaign in New York, so there will be considerable interest in how New Zealand brings the win home to the region. 

Finally, a seat at the Council will also give New Zealand the opportunity to advocate for the landmark UNSC Resolution 1325 (2000), which addresses the impact of war on women, reaffirms the role of women in UN peacekeeping and calls for women to be included at the negotiating table. New Zealand's support for UNSC 1325 has been consistent in principle but it has yet to release a National Action Plan.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user UN Photo.

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