Permanent Mission to the United Nations, New York

The United Nations: All Peoples; All Voices

Closing Address Hofstra University Department of Political Science and Model United Nations Club, Second Hofstra University Model United Nations Conference, David S Mack University Club, North Campus Hofstra University, Hempstead, Long Island, New York - 17 March.

E nga mana, e nga reo, e nga iwi; tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa; to all peoples and to all voices, greetings, greetings, greetings to all.  That greeting, in New Zealand Māori - Te Reo Māori - should have a special resonance for any gathering focused on the United Nations; because “all peoples" and “all voices" are surely what the UN is all about - a universal organisation that embraces “all peoples" and combines “all [their] voices".

And what a time to be at the UN:  Think of the “Arab Spring” (not the best name - a Spring lasts three months, but this one could be many years); or of an ambassador - unwilling to continue serving his regime – resigning in front of the Security Council; or of addressing the General Assembly and Security Council in historic chambers I once knew only from news-clips.

Many inter-governmental organisations

Today’s world has as many inter-governmental (or multilateral) organisations as there are problems – organisations dealing with all manner of global issues: the World Health Organisation; the International Monetary Fund; the International Labour Organisation; the Food and Agriculture Organisation; the list goes on.  As technology, information, media and people flows make national borders ever-more porous, as inter-state conflicts become more intra-state, as atrocities such as Rwanda and Srebrenica still occur, as new conflicts emerge in Syria and Mali, and as issues become ever-more global, it makes sense to try to meet those problems on a common, multilateral basis, and to do that through common-membership multilateral institutions.

We’ve also seen the establishment of regional and other groups such as the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU) - and, importantly for a country like mine, APEC, ASEAN and the Commonwealth.  All are important; all contribute to global peace, security or development; but there’s only one that is truly universal in membership and global in scope - the United Nations.  It’s far from perfect, but that scope and comprehensive membership gives it a universality, and a legitimacy, that no other organisation can claim (indeed, at no other time in human history have we had a body of such all-encompassing scope).

That universality is, of course, the bane of some critics, because it accords the same “respect” to a usurper as it does a democratically elected leader; and there are some who object to sharing a table with such undesirables.  It's an understandable view; but that’s the price we pay if we want at least one global body where we can deal with all, without pre-qualification – where we can seek accountability from the likes of North Korea or Iran.  For all the UN's imperfections (and there are many), that’s still much better than having no forum at which such issues can be examined. 

Only the UN can assemble 193 States to debate almost any issue, and to exercise collective responsibility. It’s the world’s principal peacekeeping body; it legitimises the use of force; and it’s a forum through which conflicts can be brought to an end.

How the UN emerged

That UN emerged, in 1945, from the rubble of “the most destructive war in human history”; and it did so under a Charter which declared that, “We the peoples of the United Nations” commit “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war; ... to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; to establish the conditions for justice and respect for international law; to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”.  Linking peace, security and prevention of war to maintaining human rights and economic and social progress, all under a multilateral umbrella, was history's most explicit-ever attempt to “beat swords into ploughshares”.

But, for all that grand language, the UN’s founders didn't envisage a utopian body in the manner of the previous, failed League of Nations; the UN's structures (particularly its Security Council) are much more realistic and pragmatic, and reflect a wider blend of politics and law.

In 1945 and before, the US was the leading advocate for a new and more effective international organisation to replace the League of Nations; and it even cut deals to make it a reality.  New Zealand was another of the UN’s founders; we helped draft that Charter; it is central to our commitment to multilateralism.

The UN; as good or as bad as its last headline

It easy – and, in many quarters, highly fashionable – to criticise the UN; it’s always only as good (usually, really, “as bad") as its last headline; which, today, probably reads: “Security Council fails to agree on Syria" (and New Zealand, among many, has been sharply critical of that failure).  That “last headline” should, of course, read, “Security Council agrees tough action on North Korea" (or "on Mali"); but "agreement" doesn't fit the critics' agenda, whereas "failure" does.

But, the UN is much more than that; for every “failure to agree”, for every seemingly unsatisfactory agenda, that same UN is out there keeping the peace and ending conflicts, providing vital humanitarian assistance, clearing mines (saving lives and limbs), distributing food in famine-struck regions, treating disease, or establishing new governance and Rule of Law institutions in a failed state – and doing it well.  Again, the list goes on - and, fundamentally, human life improves.

Benefitting from the UN; small countries and big

We all view the UN through our own particular lens.  For small countries like mine, a system of internationally agreed rules reduces opportunities for the strong to impose on the weak; it helps protect our sovereignty; it establishes norms upholding the Rule of Law; and that facilitate our trade and prosperity and the free passage of goods by sea and air; overall, it allows us to participate in global discussions directly relevant to our interests.  Multilateralism offsets the potential vulnerability and powerlessness of small states, and provides a credible forum to express their views.

Put simply: Small countries benefit from an international system based on rules – for us, those rules provide a level playing field.

But big countries benefit too - even the world's single superpower.  From a very practical perspective (and despite some rhetoric to the contrary), the US has discovered that, when its resources are constrained (as when it was over-committed in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and then constrained by new financial pressures) the UN becomes a "force extender"; and also that, if you want to get things done through the UN, you have to work with others.

Likewise, when the US wanted action on Hezbollah in Lebanon, or to end civil war in Liberia, it needed Security Council support.  And even the US must turn to the UN and its Security Council when it wants cooperative action to sanction Iran or North Korea; when it wants to drive Saddam out of Kuwait; when it wants action on Syria or Mali.

Again put simply: The US needs the UN as much as small countries, even if for different reasons.

In fact, many 21st century problems - environmental, economic, health and security – can only be dealt with at the multilateral level – by countries working together to agree solutions; and so it's the UN that acts on issues that pay no heed to state borders; issues as diverse as terrorism or fisheries.  More and more, it’s multilateral bodies - principally the UN - that write the rules that stop the spread of weapons, protect wildlife, open up trade and govern shipping – issues important to us all.  If we want to influence those rules, all countries, large and small, must be at the table when they're made; the world is too global, too inter-connected, for us not to be there - to be part of the answer.

The UN is here to stay

Like any political body, many UN decisions are compromises, where all must concede ground; and big countries can sometimes resent the fact that, despite their geopolitical power, they are expected to compromise their views and interests to achieve global agreement – and must make those compromises with small (for them, inconsequential) states, or those of different political persuasion.

Moreover, the machinery that makes those decisions is old, reflecting the epoch of its creation - out of the ashes of World War II and the shredded files of the League of Nations; since when, little has changed.  What has changed since 1945 (apart from the increased number of UN Member States) is the range of problems the UN is expected to address; and the remedial tools from which it must choose can’t always keep up.  And, since the end of the Cold War, the emergence of powers like China, India and Brazil, makes for multiple poles of power, which means that no one country can solve every problem.

So: The UN is here to stay; a reality that imposes on us all - large and small - an obligation to ensure its effectiveness in this, the 21st century.

Why New Zealand?; why the Security Council?

And, for New Zealand, one way to ensure it remains effective is actively to participate in its work - including, from time to time, serving on its Security Council.  We've been there just three times since the UN was founded; most recently in 1993-1994; and, in October next year, three countries, Spain, Turkey and New Zealand, will vie for  two Council seats allocated to the “Western European and Others Group” (WEOG) for 2015-2016.

Spain and Turkey are good friends – and they are strong opponents.  Why should New Zealand want to be on the Security Council?; why contest a seat against friends?; what do we offer?; what do we hope to achieve?; and is that Security Council even still relevant?

Tasked with preserving international peace and security, the Council is the sharp end of the UN.  It’s the Security Council to which we turn in times of trouble.

When conflict broke out in Lebanon in 2006, and in Gaza in 2008, the Council was key to getting the parties to broker a deal.  It was instrumental in achieving independence for Namibia in 1990, and peace and stability in El Salvador in 1991; its 2011 decisions led to crucial action in Côte d'Ivoire and in Libya.  It has set up tribunals to deal with genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – partly redeeming its past inaction in both situations.  The Council can authorise the use of force - in Libya, in Côte d'Ivoire, in Mali, and wherever international peace and security are threatened.

And the Council can also impose sanctions.  The universality of its measures against Iran have proved effective in raising the costs for the opaqueness of its nuclear programme; and also enabled the US and EU to impose their own further sanctions – which would have been difficult to achieve without Council cover.  The Council’s even more recent sanctions against North Korea were a strong signal that the entire international community, China included, rejects its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

The Council provides the legal authority for UN peacekeeping missions – and presently has 112,700 personnel from 115 countries serving in 14 operations protecting millions of people.

Although it wields considerable power, like the wider UN, the Security Council is far from perfect.  The UN’s second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, said that the UN wasn’t “created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”; and so it is that the Charter puts an imperfect but necessary Security Council at the sharp end of an imperfect but necessary United Nations.  It’s dominated by its five permanent members (the US, UK, France, Russia and China) – the P5 – the victors of 1945 - that "ill-assorted" alliance of democrats and communists which defeated fascism, only then to engage in a Cold War which “shaped the world” for the next 45 years.

So it’s not surprising that in 2013, 68 years after that structure was agreed, the Council no longer represents today’s geopolitical realities; its working methods are opaque, often unfair and in need of reform; and it’s often too focused on military or sanctions-based solutions (as mandated by Chapter VII of the Charter), rather than conflict prevention (under Chapter VI).  As we saw in 2011 with Côte d'Ivoire and Libya, Security Council action is an extraordinarily powerful instrument; and, as we saw in 2012 with Syria, Security Council inaction only emphasises what happens when that extraordinary power is not used – when the task is "left undone".

But, despite those shortcomings, the Council is still the only forum that can urgently respond to, and maybe prevent, security and humanitarian crises.  It can send clear messages to rogue governments that their threats to international peace and security won’t be tolerated.  It can focus on actions that enhance security, such as the role of women in peace-building, and the obvious link between economic development and political stability.  The Security Council is the high table of international affairs; when it speaks, governments, media, civil society and the public, must listen.

But that still doesn't explain why a small country like New Zealand seeks membership of a necessary but imperfect Security Council, dominated by its five permanent members, and with very poor working methods – and where (one might speculate) we'd have little chance to influence events?  Quite simply, it's because we believe that we can make a difference; indeed, history, and our record, shows we can make a difference.

Record on the Council; looking back 19 years

Let me, if I may, take you back 19 years, to 1994, when Hutu extremists in Rwanda perpetrated one of the worst genocides of recent history.  As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, New Zealand and the Czech Republic tried to persuade it to act – because, if ever an atrocity required that the UN act to “maintain international peace and security”, as declared in its Charter, this was it.  Responding to increasingly-concerned pleas from Canadian General Roméo Dallaire (who was in Rwanda), we pressed for recognition of this genocide, and for the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda to be strengthened – and, as Council President in April 1994, we even threatened a public debate to shame others into agreement.  But, against opposition from some permanent Council members, those efforts were unsuccessful - and 800,000 people were butchered with jungle knives.

The UN failed Rwanda, just as it failed Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia; it left undone those things it ought to have done.  Those genocides could have been prevented if the UN Security Council had acted - which provides the strongest possible answer to those who denigrate multilateral organisations such as the UN – if allowed to act, they can be remarkably effective, and can often prevent such atrocities.

But, too often in the past, multilateral institutions have stood aside while a government couldn’t or wouldn't prevent the slaughter of its own people; inaction that was at its worst during the Cold War, when it was ideological and political; and at its most pathetic after the Cold War, when it reflected inertia and a failure to understand how the world had fundamentally changed.

A New Zealand historian once said that, “If we wish to present ourselves as New Zealanders, then we must be able to listen to our own voices, and trace our own footsteps”.  Although unsuccessful, our voice for action in Rwanda was principled and independent – and our footsteps walked us on the right side of history.  It was later written that, “The only [Council members] who cared [about Rwanda] were New Zealand and the Czech Republic”; thus underlining the constructive role small states can play on the global stage; confirming they can make a real difference; and that they can often be more perceptive contributors.

During that same Council term, we also took leading positions on many other issues: Somalia, Burundi, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mozambique and Cambodia; territorial disputes between Cameroon and Nigeria, and Yemen and Saudi Arabia; we supported Kuwait regarding borders and prisoners of war; we urged greater Council transparency, we initiated regular briefings for non-members on the Council's agenda; and we were known as a good, informed and sympathetic listener.  Indeed, we know that, when electing Council members, many UN states want countries that bring clear thinking, shorn of partisanship, because the best contributions don’t always come from speaking out publicly – effective Council membership often requires a well-trained ear and eye, and knowing when to use our voice.

So that's why New Zealand is seeking election to the Security Council – again, to be a distinctive, independent, principled voice on a body that needs just that.

Taken overall, New Zealand's image at the UN probably reflects a national character of independence and a willingness to speak out or to listen, to be an active global player (even to stand in harm’s way), and an understanding that remoteness doesn’t protect us from global events.

So, New Zealand can make a strong case for Council membership: It would benefit the UN, it would benefit our Pacific region (historically underrepresented on the Council), and it would be in our own interest.

New Zealand not “G-Anything”

New Zealand is almost unique in that it is not part of any political alliance; we are not members of the G8, G20, G77, G7+, NATO, the EU or any other political grouping; we have many friends; we are often like-minded with others; we work with NATO in Afghanistan; we’ve built a new US relationship without compromising our nuclear policy or our relationship with China (thus showing we can navigate between two very powerful Council members); but, in the final analysis, we are “not G-Anything”, which leaves us free to speak our mind on crucial issues.

We support the US, EU and others on issues like Syria and Mali; our position on Korean peninsula issues is the same as the US.  In the Middle East, like the US (and, indeed, like Israel), we support the “Two-State Solution” – two states with agreed borders living side-by-side in peace and security - and we want that achieved by direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.  Israel knows that we understand and support its need for security guarantees as part of any such settlement.  Like the US, Israel also knows we share their deep concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme - an issue on which we work closely with the US and others at the International Atomic Energy Agency.  We were, however, the only one of the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to vote for the UN resolution recognising Palestine as a UN non-member observer state.

And we differ strongly with the US (and, indeed, with other nuclear powers) on nuclear issues: 26 years ago, we broke with the US over nuclear ship visits; we helped establish the world's second Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the South Pacific; we are a founder of the New Agenda Coalition, which seeks nuclear disarmament; and belong to a De-Alerting Group, which wants to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons.  We are party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); whereas the US has not ratified that treaty.  We support the International Criminal Court, set up by the Rome Statute to prosecute mass atrocity crimes; again, the US hasn't ratified that treaty.  And we led the final negotiations that resulted in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities– the first human rights convention of the 21st century – which the US Senate recently declined to ratify.

A distinctive, independent voice

All of which means that, while often supportive of others, New Zealand’s foreign policy still has its own distinctive, independent voice.  It's an eclectic mix, which sets us apart from the rest: part Asia-Pacific (particularly Pacific), part European heritage (but less so over time), part small state (an increasingly loud voice), part reflecting our unique, multi-cultural society, and part innovative, bridge-building pragmatism.

But speaking your mind is one thing; in fact, we usually only speak at the UN when we have something – preferably something different – to say; and more than one Ambassador has told me that, for that reason, when New Zealand speaks, they listen.

So, there’s a place at the UN – and particularly at its highest table – for a country that’s recognised as an active participant; as an independent, principled, trustworthy and pragmatic state, with strong, consistently-held values; one that isn’t party to and doesn’t play bloc politics, and instead seeks constructive solutions, and builds bridges between factions.  We’d also be a voice for small states; and, as part of the Pacific regional family, we’d bring an Asia-Pacific perspective – which should be welcomed on a Council where Europeans can sometimes hold one third of the seats.

So, New Zealand knows – indeed, it has shown – that Security Council membership is a credible way to influence world affairs and to enhance our relationships with those who do likewise.  Following a recent Prime Ministerial visit to Latin America, it was noted that the host countries had all acknowledged "New Zealand's role as an influential interlocutor in fora such as the UN, the World Trade Organisation, the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Emissions, [APEC] and of course the [Trans Pacific Partnership or TPP] where compelling diplomatic advocacy by New Zealand led to the expansion of the original P4 partners into a major developing regional trade agreement".

Understanding developing events

We can’t predict what problems the Council will be addressing two years hence; but they’ll certainly be the great issues of the day - issues on which a principled, independent voice could make a difference.  Any one of those issues could require full-time attention; collectively, they could put the world to the test, possibly as we haven’t been tested since the end of the Cold War.

And, if we are put to that test, much of our response will depend on how well we understand developing events.  We now know we didn't fully appreciate the implications of the Soviet collapse, the end of the Cold War, and the flow-on effects, often far beyond the obvious theatres - the break-up of Yugoslavia and diminished support for parts of Africa.  The Rwandan and Srebrenica massacres, and other atrocities, all occurred in a post-Cold War context, when some regimes and blocs were struggling for legitimacy; indeed, when some states and blocs were disintegrating.  The international community celebrated what it saw as the "end of history" – but only when the machetes came out in Rwanda, and towns burned in Srebrenica, did we focus on the consequences of the political, economic, social and cultural declines that came with the end of the Cold War.  But if, as some believe, these things happen in 20 to 25 year cycles, it would be far better if, next time, we really understood what's happening, why it’s happening and what it means - so we need to learn and apply the lessons of history.

“Events, dear boy, events”

When asked what was most likely to blow governments off course, Harold Macmillan, British Prime Minister of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, replied, “Events, dear boy, events”.  The "events" of August and September 2008 (Lehman Brothers and all that) caught governments and regulators by surprise; but at least they understood and acted quickly.  The fall of the Berlin Wall was equally a surprise; but it took all the months and years that followed to understand what it really meant and how we should respond.  The Arab Spring is well upon us; Syria slides further out of control; Mali and the Sahel pose new challenges; North Korea is increasingly bellicose; all seemingly beyond our control; “events, dear boy”, all of them.  We mightn’t face a repeat of the early 1930s (when protectionism only aggravated the Depression) or the late 1980s (when we didn’t understand to the end of the Cold War), but we can learn the lessons of those times and be ready to respond to what emerges today.

Michael Green and Steven Schrage, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, have written that –

It is no mere coincidence that the last great global economic downturn was followed by the most destructive war in human history.  In the 1930s, economic desperation helped fuel autocratic regimes and protectionism in a downward economic-security debt spiral that engulfed the world in conflict … [The 1930s responses] which failed to stop the drift toward deeper depression and world war, should be a cautionary tale for leaders heading to [current global summits].

The lessons of history, indeed.

Green and Schrage particularly identified the risk of protectionism; not least domestic demands similar to those that prompted the notorious Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1932, which many see as a key reason for war finally spreading to Asia and the Pacific in December 1941.  They also suggested that, while financial crises have distracted other nations”, there is “much evidence [that rogue] states see an opportunity to advance their asymmetrical advantages against the international system” - and we must heed that warning; and they highlighted “challenges to the democratic model” (faced, right now, in the Middle East and elsewhere) –

… to thrive, new democracies [must] deliver basic economic growth … reversal of the democratic expansion of the last two decades would not only impact the global balance of power, but also increase the potential number of failed states with all the attendant risks they bring, from harbouring terrorists to incubating pandemic diseases and trafficking in persons.

The lessons of history

The United Nations resulted from the lessons of history - from mistakes that led to the "most destructive war in human history", the greatest-ever global Depression, massive human rights violations, and the ultimate failure of the League of Nations.  Those lessons eventually gave us a United Nations whose purpose was, as General Douglas MacArthur said, in 1945, at the final surrender on the battleship Missouri - so elegantly, so simply – “that peace be now restored to the world”.

Some might simply define that peace only as the “absence of war”.  But real peace is much more than that – it’s “accompanied by an unavoidable set of values”, including “freedom from tyranny and freedom from fear” - to which I’d add secure access to safe food and water, freedom from poverty, freedom from preventable disease, the freedom to learn, and the freedom to choose political leaders.  That's real peace; and it’s a real peace challenge that still confronts us - made all the more acute and pressing, all the more urgent, by Middle East issues, the Arab Spring, economic concerns, and events in Africa, North Korea, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

One often encounters scepticism about the readiness, willingness and ability of the UN to deal with such issues.  But those sceptics should be reminded that the UN was created to meet challenges that were once so overwhelming that some only saw solutions in autarkic economic protectionism, or in wars of aggression and destruction; and that dealing with those issues by other, more peaceful means was never going to be easy.

I had to think about all this when, for a class speech, a nine-year-old, asked me “what was the best thing about being appointed as New Zealand’s [Ambassador to] the UN?”  I told her the UN's purpose was to ensure peace for everyone.  “It hasn't been perfect”, I said, "but it's done a lot of good - and it's meant that, unlike our fathers and grandfathers, I and others like me didn't have to fight in another world war".

I’m ever-mindful that mine was the first generation of the 20th century that wasn't called to a global war - very simply because, despite myriad, often deeply destructive regional conflicts, there hasn't been another world war.  It’s not the UN alone that’s delivered that period of global peace (the longest since the Congress of Vienna in 1815); European unity has been crucial, as has Asian economic development; and, over the next quarter century or so, the African Union may well have a similar impact in its region; but the UN has still played a critical, central role.

I began this address with a Māori greeting which, I suggested, captured the essence of a universal United Nations.  I’ve always held in awe the ability of Māori orators to capture whole ideas in a single metaphoric phrase: “He nui maunga e kore e taea te whakaneke, he nui ngaru moana ma te ihu o te waka e wahi”; a great mountain cannot be moved, but a giant wave can be broken by the canoe’s prow.  Although the challenges facing our world might seem overwhelming, they can be overcome - because the giant wave of those problems can still be broken by the prow of the United Nations’ canoe.

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