Opening address - 2015 Otago Foreign Policy School

  • Murray McCully
Foreign Affairs


I want to start by stating the glaringly obvious. In international relations, size matters. It is not the only thing, but in reality the bigger you are, and the more resources you have, the more options you have.

New Zealand currently has a population of around 4.5 million. That is about 0.06 per cent of all the people in the world. Our economy makes up about 0.29 per cent of the world economy. And as you know, the majority of our trading markets are thousands of kilometres away.

But thankfully for New Zealand, brute force and size are not the only tools countries can use in their dealings with each other. While at times it seems like the Wild West out there, there are some global rules and norms.

As a small country we benefit from a rules-based system which extends to pretty much every sovereign state. And as an Asian-Pacific nation we benefit from the security, stability and prosperity of our region.

As a global trading nation we benefit from robust international rules because these rules level the playing field for all countries.

Over a decade ago we began a campaign for the United Nations Security Council because as a country we believe in global rules and institutions.  Our campaign showed that we can work with the majority of the 193 states that make up the UN.

On 1 January this year New Zealand joined the UNSC with the support of three quarters of the member countries in last year’s ballot.

On 1 July, we assume the presidency of the Council for one month – a position we will also hold in the month of September 2016. Countries that voted for New Zealand, and New Zealanders themselves are entitled to ask: what do we expect to achieve during our time in the Council chair.

So today I want to talk about the approach we will take.

First we need to understand that there is not unlimited flexibility to shape the Security Council agenda.  Events, past and current dictate much of the Council’s workload.

Historical events will play a part in shaping the Council’s agenda for July, for example we expect the Council to mark the 20th anniversary of the massacre of 8,000 in Srebrenica and the anniversary of the downing of MH17.

Our Presidency will also see the six monthly rollover of the Cyprus peacekeeping mandate – a fifty year old dispute which at last shows signs of moving to a positive resolution.

Our task in July will be to keep what is shaping up as a positive process clear of any obstructions and focusing the Council on supporting good leadership from the key parties.

Events in today’s trouble spots: Burundi, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Mali, South Sudan – will play a large role in shaping the Council’s daily agenda.

We have made clear our determination to see the Council become more transparent and more inclusive in the manner in which it deals with these challenges.

Greater consultation with, and more listening to, key neighbours are qualities New Zealand particularly values.

We have also made it clear that we intend to bring a sense of impatience to the Council. The Security Council has become both the architect and the victim of a culture of low expectations. We have all been conditioned to expect it to fail – and it almost always meets our expectations.

A key element in this culture is the use, or the threatened use of the veto. A topic I shall return to later.

When the Council is paralysed or is incapable of acting, the world pays a high price.

There is something wrong when we are spending over $US8 billion per year on peacekeeping and a further $US10.5 billion on providing assistance to people affected by conflict but virtually nothing on the prevention of situations escalating into intractable conflict.


New Zealand’s high level event during our Presidency will focus on the security challenges faced by small island developing states - SIDS.

The reasons for this are straightforward.  New Zealand is a Pacific nation.  Our closest neighbours and the majority of our development partners are Pacific island countries.

This has given us an understanding of what vulnerability and security means for small isolated states with limited resources.

New Zealand’s long-standing commitment to helping its small island friends address these unique challenges was one of the reasons we received such strong support from SIDS, in the Pacific and elsewhere, during our campaign for seat on the Council.

It is clear, however, that this understanding is not broadly shared by the international community.

Despite making up 20 per cent of the UN membership, only three SIDS have ever served on the Security Council; none of these from the Pacific.

And when others have sought to bring the concerns of SIDS to the Council, this has often met strong resistance, with some questioning whether this represents a legitimate topic for the Council at all.

New Zealand will convene an Open Debate on the security challenges faced by SIDS - ranging from the theft of natural resources, to climate change and natural disasters, to transnational crime and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons – because these are of fundamental importance to our friends; and because if countries like New Zealand refuse to help in giving them a voice, who will?

Middle East Peace Process

We have not come on to the Council with a shopping list. Of course, we need to pick our targets and identify where we can contribute the most given our size.  You may ask why we have been especially focused on one of the world’s most intractable challenges – the Middle East Peace Process.

While we are small and geographically remote New Zealand is amongst a relatively small group that enjoys excellent relations with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Over recent months we have been looking constantly for opportunities to find a way in which the UNSC can energise direct negotiations between the parties. Five decades is long enough to wait.

Indeed, since the beginning of the Palestinian – Israeli conflict, New Zealand has sought to approach the issue even-handedly.

We have long called for a two-state solution.  We have condemned acts of violence by both sides, as we did last year in respect of Gaza.

And we want the peace process energised back into life.  New Zealand believes that if the UN Security Council fails to bring leadership to this issue, at this critical time, this would amount to an abdication of its responsibilities.

That is not to diminish in any way the importance of US leadership, or to undervalue the outstanding work that has been done by Secretary Kerry.

US leadership in the Peace Process is indispensable- but is not sufficient by itself.  Stronger international support needs to be marshalled behind this process, and the UNSC is the right place to start.

Indeed, with its “primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security”, if the Council doesn’t have a role in the current circumstances, it’s hard to envisage when it might have a role.

Let’s look at the specifics.

I’ve recently returned from Jerusalem and Ramallah, where I discussed the peace process with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and President of the Palestinian Authority Abbas.

New Zealand staunchly supports the existence of the State of Israel and supports its right to defend that existence in accordance with international law.  We accept that security arrangements will be fundamental to any final agreement.

We need to be realistic- nothing will happen in this space if Israel’s security concerns are not appropriately accommodated.

Israelis look at rocket attacks from Gaza, and insecurity in the Golan Heights, for example, and ask who will underwrite their security situation in any permanent solution.

They look across to the West Bank and ask whether the current high levels of security cooperation will be maintained by future Governments.

Equally the Palestinians watch the continuation of settlement construction and wonder if it will be possible to construct a state out of what is left.

There are solutions to these questions, and I believe they could be arrived at more quickly and easily than most would think.

The impression I gained from being on the ground and speaking to the leaders was that, essentially, they aren’t that far apart.  They know what any final deal would look like for the most part.

There are some sensitive issues that require compromise.

The question is: how do we get them back to the negotiating table?

While it’s clearly for the parties themselves to reach final agreement, I believe that the time is rapidly approaching when the Council needs to use its moral and legal authority, and the practical tools at its disposal, as well as the good offices of the Secretary General, to shift the dynamics back to productive negotiations.

We don’t want to multilateralise a process that should involve direct negotiations between the two parties, but we do want to lend multilateral support to assist those parties to the table and to succeed in their negotiations.

Some of our close friends in the Council, notably France, are also active in this space, and I remain in close contact with Foreign Minister Fabius.

I also recently visited Egypt, which will be a key player in any negotiation both because of their weight in the neighbourhood and their own success in achieving peace with Israel.

When I was a young man, the accepted view was that peace between Egypt and Israel was impossible.

With visionary leadership, the collective wisdom of the day was proved wrong in 1979 when a peace agreement between the two was signed at Camp David.  This agreement included mutual recognition and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Sinai.

Peace has endured since then between the two.

That alone should have been enough to show the world that anything is possible in this space.

For 33 years New Zealand has supported that peace through its contributions to the MFO in the Sinai.

As I say, the Egyptians have a key role in satisfying Israel’s security concerns, sharing a border with Gaza.  The Egyptians also have an interest in the security situation in Gaza, having serious concerns over the actions of Hamas.

The key question now is to pick the moment of opportunity to try to kick start the Peace Process.  There will be many reasons why now is not the right time.

As President Abbas said to me a few weeks ago in Ramallah: first we had to wait for the formation of the new Israeli Government.  Now we have to wait for the Iran nuclear deal to go through.  Then we’ll have to wait for the US primaries to take place.  Then it’ll be the US elections.  After that, what will be the excuse- elections in Zimbabwe?

I took from this comment that there is a palpable sense of desperation on the side of the Palestinians.

And I can understand why.  Unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza is impossibly high.  The economy is failing.

And as the Foreign Minister commented to me: to visit his mother who lives in Nablus, which should be no more than an hour away by car from Ramallah, due to check points and detours, what should be a simple journey can last a whole day, if indeed it is even possible.

We cannot have another generation of young Palestinians grow up without any hope for improvement, and expect the outcome to be any different to the violence and strife we have witnessed over recent years. The Israel/Palestine dispute remains a fuse that so often threatens to ignite the powder keg that is the Middle East.

If we can progress the Middle East Peace Process we render so many of the other challenges in the region so much easier to resolve.

As I told Prime Minister Netanyahu, while we fully understand his security concerns, the long term security of Israel is ultimately undermined by a failure to resolve the Palestine issue.

New Zealand’s term on the Council is a short two years, and we don’t want to die wondering.


A significant driver of the culture of impotence in New York is the use, or threat to use, the veto. During our July Presidency we will opt for quiet, constructive engagement with Council members on this topic.

This is a subject which benefits little from public grand-standing.  We will therefore be seeking to engage with Permanent Members because this is an issue which goes to the heart of the reputation and effectiveness of the UN.

Whether we are talking about Syria or the Middle-East Peace Process, the veto’s impact today far exceeds what was envisaged in the UN Charter – to the huge detriment of the Council’s effectiveness and credibility.

The original intent of the veto was to provide the large powers with an “out” in the case that their national interests were directly threatened. However, the use of the veto has turned out to be a serious impediment on the Council’s ability to take on difficult issues.

We congratulate France on its initiative on the voluntary retirement of the veto in the case of mass atrocities. We would like to take the idea of voluntary restraint even further.

As I have noted, this is the sort of area that requires deft diplomacy, patience and perseverance and I won’t go into the detail here, except to note that this is an issue that deeply concerns New Zealand and we intend to use our two years on the Council to make the progress on this issue, that is, in my view, long overdue.

It’s going to be a busy July, both in Wellington and in New York. But hopefully both that large block of countries that places their faith in our candidacy, and the New Zealand public, will see noticeable progress.


As I said at the start of this speech, New Zealand is small in world terms. Ten years ago when we put ourselves forward as a candidate for the Security Council we profiled ourselves as independent. We said we would provide a voice for small states, we would aim to achieve practical results, and we would make a positive impact on international peace and security.

We campaigned on the basis that New Zealand could guarantee any UN member state if any issue of importance came up on the Council’s agenda; we would give them a fair hearing.

The security issues facing the world are becoming more complex every year. This requires all states to play their part in looking for solutions.

That means if multilateral institutions are broken, we need to help fix them. They are too important to New Zealand, and the world’s security – both globally and regionally.

Our term on the Council gives us a chance to demonstrate that multilateralism can work. The UN is not perfect, but I would like to think that a little bit of pragmatism can go a long way in finding effective solutions.

Thank you.