Speech at the United Nations Association of New Zealand: 2018 National Conference

  • Fletcher Tabuteau
Foreign Affairs

Tēnā koutou katoa

Te Perehitene mō, te roopu Whakakotahi Whenua o Aotearoa, ā Joy Dunsheath, ngā mihi kia koe

Ngā tauira mē koutou katoa I roto I tē kaupapa ō tēnei rā,

Tēnā tātou katoa

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say a few words at your 2018 National Conference. It’s a real pleasure to be here at Victoria University of Wellington [as a former educator myself].

I acknowledge the important role that the United Nations Association of New Zealand plays in raising public awareness about the United Nations.  

New Zealand’s foreign policy has long been characterised by the strength of its independent voice. That voice has been strongest when New Zealand’s deeply held values are projected onto the world stage.

New Zealand has been a consistent supporter of the international rules-based system and was, as you all know, a founding member of the United Nations. 

Our interests are best served by such a system where conflict, trans-border and global challenges are addressed collectively, utilising multilateral rules and institutions.

Having international rules and standards provides stability, certainty and protection. 

For a small, geographically isolated nation like New Zealand, our security and well-being depends on global stability, underpinned by rules and norms that also reflect our national values.   

It is no secret that the United Nations and the broader international rules-based system are under serious strain and face many, complex challenges.

As the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Right Honourable Winston Peters, said recently “we are at a turning point where the importance of protecting our interests in the face of converging geo-political and trade challenges is ever greater, as global rules are under threat, and as geopolitical changes are calling into question the primacy of the system”.

We see these strains in the repeated failure of the United Nations Security Council to agree on measures to end major conflicts such as the conflict in Syria, where even getting critically needed humanitarian assistance to war-torn communities has been extremely difficult.    

New Zealand saw first-hand the impact of the major power dynamics at play while serving on the Security Council in 2015 and 2016. 

Early this month was the second anniversary of Security Council Resolution 2286 on healthcare in armed conflict. New Zealand played a leading role in the development and negotiation of the Resolution and it passed unanimously even though humanitarian access continues to be limited.

In addition to Syria, there are a number of examples where major power dynamics has prevented the Security Council from being able to agree on effective action. These include Yemen, Libya, Western Sahara, Darfur and in South Sudan, where David Shearer is doing an admirable job leading the UN peacekeeping mission – one of the toughest jobs out there in the UN system.

Since the establishment of the United Nations, as you know New Zealand has been a passionate advocate against the veto in the Security Council. 

Even more pervasive than the use of the veto is the “threat” of the veto, which is often used on controversial issues to block discussions before they even start.  New Zealand has worked with other Member States to support initiatives aimed at curtailing the use of the veto, particularly in situations involving mass atrocities. We shouldn’t kid ourselves, but these initiatives are slowly building real momentum among the broader UN membership.

As major reforms to the structure of the Security Council are unlikely anytime soon, a key focus for New Zealand has been on operational changes to improve the Council’s working methods.

While on the Council, New Zealand encouraged a strong focus on concrete, practical outcomes, such as using Council statements and Council visits as conflict prevention tools.  We encouraged greater transparency and consultation with key stakeholders, including affected countries, regional organisations, such as the African Union, as well as the countries that contribute large numbers of troops to UN peacekeeping operations. 

New Zealand also reinforced the role of the 10 non-permanent members of the Council and challenged some of the practices of the five permanent members, including their dominance of the drafting of Council resolutions and the way that work is allocated to non-permanent members.  New Zealand secured important outcomes in these areas.

There is a lot of talk, as you know, about the dominance of the permanent five members of the Security Council and the abuse of the use of the veto, and rightfully so. We have seen the veto – and implicit threat of the veto – used recently for instance to block accountability mechanisms for alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria. But the elected members also have a significant role. Together they make up the majority of the Council. Collectively they have enormous power, but all too often this is not seized.

New Zealand tried to change this as a Council member and still works with current elected members, such as Sweden, to be bolder and more courageous in asserting the interests of the broader UN membership. Along these lines, I would quote the words of the former head of the UN political mission in Libya, Ian Martin, as he signed off his role last month as director of the non-profit organisation Security Council Report:

“Reform of the composition of the Security Council is essential as a matter of justice and legitimacy, yet seems still beyond the ability of governments to agree upon; it would not in itself be a guarantee of effectiveness, and indeed an enlarged Council would all the more need to improve its working methods. In the immediate future, it is the quality and determination of the ten elected members on which some incremental improvement in performance most depends.”

As a member, New Zealand was a vocal advocate for small states and the principle that every voice should have the chance to be heard. During our Presidency of the Council in July 2015 we convened an Open Debate on the Peace and Security Challenges Facing Small Island Developing States (SIDS).  This was the first time island states had had a dedicated Council audience which they used successfully to raise awareness of the particular vulnerabilities they face.

Despite its flaws the Security Council provides a key forum for global powers to engage regularly in diplomacy to discuss issues and give them greater prominence.

In the case of North Korea, while it was another issue on which it was difficult to get agreement in the Security Council, sustained diplomatic efforts have resulted in increasing the pressure on Pyongyang. The final outcome remains to be seen, but the pressure, including from the Council, appears to have made a positive contribution.

Other examples of the useful role the Security Council has played include the successful completion of several UN peacekeeping operations in West Africa as peace and stability have returned in places like Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire.  An example from our region is the UN-assisted process in Timor-Leste, which included a significant role played by New Zealand.  

The United Nations also remains a valuable channel for New Zealand more generally.

The United Nations and other international organisations have unparalleled convening power and global reach; affording us the opportunity to influence others at the highest level. 

New Zealand engages and works with the UN, including the various Funds, Programmes and Specialised Agencies in New York, Geneva and a range of locations such as Vienna, Rome, Suva, Apia and others.  Our involvement in the UN System ranges from helping to set policy and international rules, to providing funding, through to cooperation in the delivery of programmes in our region. 

New Zealand contributes personnel to UN peacekeeping operations and there are many other Kiwis throughout the UN System.  We have also contributed significantly over the years in niche areas such as demining assistance.

Multilateral agencies also provide technical expertise and set standards that affect New Zealanders in a wide range of areas from food safety, to oceans and fisheries issues, to health and many others.
We use the multilateral institutions to advance our interests and those of our Pacific neighbours, through our strong advocacy for Small Island Developing States. 

Reflecting on the “Global Summitry” theme of this year’s conference, the multilateral system has concluded some major components of global architecture in the past few years, which have been notable successes.

I want to mention in particular the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Goals contain targets of importance to New Zealand; reflecting areas where we want to encourage international action, including climate change, oceans and fisheries, trade, fossil fuel subsidies, peace and security, and gender. We incorporate principles of sustainable development, and the Agenda, throughout our aid programme.

The Agenda also applies to what happens within New Zealand. The Government has a strong focus on sustainable development and intends to measure progress more broadly in terms of social, economic and environmental factors. We are taking measures domestically that are directly relevant to the SDGs, including by developing a well-being approach to policy and budgeting.

The Government is proposing to present a Voluntary National Report to the United Nations next year on New Zealand’s implementation of the SDGs.

A discussion on recent successes of the international architecture would be incomplete without mention of the Paris Agreement.  The Paris Agreement obliges the international community to take action on climate change.  As the Prime Minister has said, it is an issue which needs to be tackled head on. 

Another recent example of the power of international action is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which is the first international treaty formally outlawing nuclear weapons.  This week the New Zealand Cabinet agreed to ratify the treaty, in line with our long standing commitment to a nuclear weapon-free world.

This is particularly welcome timing for me personally – as of this week I am honoured and humbled to assume the role of Under-Secretary to the Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control, in addition to my foreign affairs responsibilities.

Not every issue needs to be considered by the United Nations or by a “Global Summit”. But when used in a targeted fashion they are a vital part of the international diplomatic toolkit. 

At the same time, the multilateral system needs to evolve and ensure that it remains relevant. 
New Zealand has an opportunity now to support the reform agenda of the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres.  The much needed reforms are aimed at:

- improving the UN’s delivery of development assistance in line with the SDGs;
- improving the UN’s peace and security management, especially conflict prevention, and;
- streamlining the infamous UN bureaucracy.

We need to ensure that New Zealand, and Pacific, interests are well captured in the reform process.

As a demonstration of our commitment to international engagement, the Government has announced a significant boost to New Zealand’s development spending as well as a commitment to restoring lost capacity in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The Government has allocated an additional $714.22 million over the next four years to lift New Zealand's Official Development Assistance to 0.28 percent of Gross National Income.

A large part of that increase will be directed towards our work in the Pacific. The Minister of Foreign Affairs has been extremely clear that at the core of New Zealand’s international engagement must be our relationships with the Pacific.

Under the “Pacific Reset” the Government intends to refresh its approach to relations with our Pacific neighbours; moving from a donor-recipient relationship to one of genuine and mature political partnerships underlined by mutual-respect.

New Zealand’s identity is inextricably linked with the Pacific. What is good for the Pacific is good for us.

The increase in funding will bolster efforts to tackle priority issues for the Pacific, especially climate change.  And to focus on areas in keeping with New Zealand’s values – good governance and transparency, and human rights. 

The funding will also involve doing our part in support of multilateral institutions; bringing our values to the world. As Minister Peters said “we are determined that New Zealand’s voice will be backed with credible resources”, so that we can have the greatest impact; working to prevent environmental, humanitarian and international crises.

We need the support of New Zealanders to tell the story of the benefits of New Zealand’s international engagement. This is particularly the case with the United Nations which can feel very distant from the everyday lives of New Zealanders.

I encourage your organisation, the United Nations Association of New Zealand, to continue its important work in reaching out to the public and especially to Kiwi youth.

Thank you for having me here today and best wishes for the remainder of the conference.