In just under four months New Zealand will end its fourth stint since 1954 on the United Nations Security Council. From the inception of the United Nations in 1945 at the San Francisco Conference New Zealand has been one of its strongest supporters, with then Prime Minister Peter Fraser playing a well-recognised leading role as both an advocate for collective security as an alternative to the devastating world war that was just ending, and a staunch promoter of the rights of small nations in the post-colonial world about to emerge. Consistent with that view, Fraser argued strongly, but unsuccessfully, against the individual veto power proposed for the Permanent Members of the Security Council (America, Britain, Russia, France and China). New Zealand’s support for the United Nations has been constant since that time, although successive governments have upheld Fraser’s view about the veto, and have routinely argued for its abolition, the most recent occasion being John Key’s stinging speech to the General Assembly in 2013.
New Zealand’s previous terms on the Security Council have coincided with great international events, where it has been able to have had some direct influence on the United Nations’ approach to those. In 1954, it was the aftermath of the Korean War and the fall of the French in Indo China after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, which led to the formation of the southern hemisphere version of NATO – SEATO (the South East Asia Treaty Organisation) – as a supposed bulwark against Communist insurgence and expansion in the region, and in which New Zealand played a significant role until its demise in the 1970s and 1980s. In our 1966 term the Vietnam War was at its peak, and as the Pentagon Papers revealed subsequently, that while outwardly hawkish, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake was actually a strong doubter of the wisdom and effectiveness of the United States’ saturation bombing of North Vietnam. New Zealand’s 1994-95 term was dominated by the appalling genocides of the 1992-95 Bosnian War and the Rwandan crisis, and New Zealand won plaudits for the deft courses it followed in working towards peace and reconciliation in both conflicts.
At each of those times, New Zealand held true to Peter Fraser’s line, against the veto, and was a consistent advocate for the rights of small nations. At other times, most notably the ill-fated United States’ promoted and led invasion of Iraq, New Zealand upheld his commitment to collective security and declined to become involved unless there was a clear and specific United Nations’ mandate to do so.
Against that background and John Key’s strong speech to the General Assembly three years ago, there were high hopes New Zealand’s current term on the Security Council would be in the mould of the previous ones, and that we would mark out clear territory of our own to make a difference. United Nations Reform and the promotion of international human rights seemed obvious areas for New Zealand to pursue, so the question needs to be asked whether New Zealand has made any difference at all this time around.
In part, New Zealand’s current role has been somewhat diverted by the understandable commitment, this year especially, to supporting Helen Clark’s bid to become the next Secretary-General. But while United Nations Reform and the promotion of international human rights have been the strong foundations of her campaign, it is not clear that they have been as strong a set of features of New Zealand’s term overall. And if Helen Clark’s bid fails, as now seems increasingly likely (perhaps because of the veto, ironically) New Zealand will be left with barely a couple of months to make an impact. All of which seems unlikely, and suggests this term on the Security Council will best be remembered, if at all, as one of lost opportunity.
Peter Fraser’s determination in 1945 was that the United Nations be a forum where all countries, large and small, would have a say, which was why he was so strongly opposed to the veto. The sad conclusion is that 70 years later, having campaigned successfully in 2014 as a trusty upholder of the rights of small nations, and bolstered by the strong support of our current Prime Minister for the Fraser position, New Zealand now looks likely to end its current Security Council term, in T.S. Eliot’s immortal words, “not with a bang, but a whimper.”