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UN Security Council Reform Proposals

In the Speech from the Throne last week the Prime Minister identified the usual domestic goals for his Government. I counted 17. They are not my subject today. I wish instead to focus on matters beyond our shores. In the speech the Prime Minister also welcomed our election to the Security Council. New Zealand, he said, is determined to make a positive contribution, and, in particular, to represent the perspective of small States on the council. We agree, but such a contribution will need an aspirational world view of a kind that I doubt the Prime Minister can even appreciate just yet. Let us see if we are up to it. Let me cite four areas where New Zealand could make a positive contribution on the council. There are several areas of peace and security doctrine that need strengthening, there is scope for work on nuclear disarmament, there is climate change, and there is reform of the council itself.

There are three areas where the fabric of global peace can be strengthened, picking up from the world summit outcome document of 2005, which serves as the current building block of international peace and security. First, the council should develop a more objective and rigorous procedure for referral of situations to the International Criminal Court so that leaders—civilian or military, Government or not—can be held individually accountable to the global community. Cases such as Syria and Iraq, Israel and Gaza, Afghanistan, and Ukraine could be added to the cases out of Africa. Second, the council could develop a new doctrine of mandatory referral, under chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, of territorial disputes to the International Court of Justice, overriding under binding powers any national reservations entered against the International Court of Justice statute. Third, New Zealand could lead in raising the status of the responsibility to protect doctrine in the council as an aid to decision making involving the legal use of force for the protection of civilians vulnerable to egregious abuses of human rights. This has special resonance for counter terrorism. The Prime Minister said the Government has already commenced work on a review of policy and law in relation to terrorist fighters returning from conflict zones. He said the rapid rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) poses risks to which the Government will respond.

The most assured way of responding to terrorism is two-fold. First, we make sure that any use of force against terrorists is strictly in accordance with international law as Resolution 2170 demands and we address its root causes, as identified in the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy of 2005, reaffirmed last August in the council’s Resolution 2178. The second area where we could contribute is in nuclear disarmament. New Zealand could more actively promote the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention, which we voted for in the General Assembly recently. Obviously, the nuclear powers on the council will not be enamoured, but article 26 imposes on the council the obligation to develop plans for the regulation of armaments. Article 24 requires the council to act on behalf of all member States. Article 2 requires it to fulfil those obligations in good faith. New Zealand could respectfully remind the council of its obligations. The third area is in climate change. New Zealand could reintroduce climate change on the council’s agenda when it takes the presidency, as was done by Germany and the UK, with a view to finally declaring it to be a threat to international peace and security.

Finally, there is the much broader issue of Security Council reform. This has a long history of intelligent proposals fronting up against the implacable and entrenched opposition from the major powers. Small States cross this terrain at their risk, but creative work from the middle powers and the small States will be the only way for fundamental change to the Security Council. New Zealand, Jordan, Chile, and Chad are the four small States on the council next year. Can we work together? The contemporary saga of Security Council reform dates from 2004 with the report of a high-level panel on threats, challenges, and change. As the panel said then: “We see no practical way of changing the existing [permanent] members’ veto powers. Yet … the veto has an anachronistic character that is unsuitable for the United Nations in an increasingly democratic age.

The panel urged its use be limited to matters where the vital interests of the major powers are genuinely at stake. The panel requested the permanent five individually to pledge to refrain from the veto in cases of genocide and large-scale human rights abuses, and have proposed a system of indicative voting whereby council members could call for a public indication of position and where a “no” vote would not constitute a veto and the vote would not have legal effect. The panel’s general ideas were picked up by a group of small States known as the small five: Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Jordan, and Singapore. The group put forward a draft resolution to the General Assembly back in 2005 and again in 2011 and 2012 on improving the working methods of the Security Council.

The draft was both far reaching and far ranging. Among other things, it proposed three major changes to the veto. First, a permanent member casting a veto would be required to explain its reasons for doing so, including how such a decision is consistent with the charter and international law. A copy of its explanation would be circulated to all member States. Second, the permanent five would refrain from using a veto to block council action in situations involving serious allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of humanitarian law. Third, a convention would develop in appropriate cases of declaring that a negative vote will not constitute a veto under article 27. I think no action in the history of the United Nations has illustrated such vision, such creativity, or such courage as the proposal of the small five in 2012.

The matter came to a head when the permanent five pulled out all stops to prevent a vote on the draft. It effectively became a struggle between the five most powerful and virtually the five least powerful over the future of the world body. The matter was settled by way of a ruling from the Secretary-General’s chief legal officer that such a resolution required a two-thirds majority, not a simple majority, so the small five withdrew their draft. Things remain the same. Russia and China veto resolutions over Syria. The US vetoes over Israel. The council remains largely ineffective. Not as ineffectual as during the Cold War, but not as effectual as is needed for the 21st century. I cite these developments because they stand as a beacon for New Zealand’s forthcoming tenure on the council. We displayed courage of our own kind back in 1994 with ambassador Keating’s work on Rwanda, but reform of the council along the lines of the small five will challenge us in new and different ways. I hope the Government is up to it. These are, I believe, the areas where New Zealand could make a positive contribution to the Security Council, as the Prime Minister is rightly aspiring to do. The Green Party stands ready to assist and also to judge.


10/30/2014 – 12:10


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