After the UN Security Council - what’s next for NZ?

23 December 2016, 14:04 UTC | New Zealand
© Andrew Burton/Getty Images
By Carsten Bockemuehl - Research & Policy Manager, Amnesty International NZ

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. While the troubled year of 2016 is approaching its final days, so is New Zealand’s term as an elected member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) - the highest body of decision-making with regards to international peace and security.    

So what exactly is coming to an end today? For the New Zealand Government and its civil servants, it’s two years of daily exposure to the world’s major armed conflicts. Two years of perpetual crisis diplomacy. Two years of frustration with political posturing and a largely dysfunctional UNSC that sits back rather than take action when faced with hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.  

Looking at events unfolding in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and many more war zones, it is fair to ask what difference New Zealand has made, if any at all. Years into these conflicts, the murder of civilians still continues unabated with no clear end in sight.

It may be too early to answer this question with any certainty; analysis at a later point will show if New Zealand’s efforts were anything beyond well-intentioned (but unsuccessful for reasons beyond their control). However, now is the right time to start thinking about next steps and what may lie ahead. After its short stint on the world stage, what should be at the top of New Zealand’s foreign policy agenda?

Throughout its term on the Council, Amnesty International pressed New Zealand to strongly stand up for the protection of civilian populations from mass slaughter. It’s crucial that small countries hold the P5 to account over cynical politics, speak out against abuses, work to strengthen compliance with international law and end impunity where the law has clearly been violated.

New Zealand deserves credit for forcing some conversations with major powers on the urgent need to protect civilians in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. For instance, New Zealand often served as the voice of the humanitarian aid community, working to mirror their concerns around unhindered access and efforts to provide life-saving assistance. New Zealand also strongly opposed the use of the veto power preventing urgent UNSC action to save lives. Finally, New Zealand demonstrated strong leadership in adopting a resolution calling for the protection of health care in armed conflict. While not successful in stopping the bloodshed overall, these efforts at least helped contain civilian suffering and put some diplomatic pressure on the “bad guys”.

These priorities must not fall off the agenda now that New Zealand is no more a member of the UNSC. To the contrary, we need New Zealand to continue speaking truth to power and champion unhindered aid access, veto restraint and the protection of hospitals in conflict.

We need New Zealand to continue speaking truth to power and champion unhindered aid access, veto restraint and the protection of hospitals in conflict.

Further, there are more tangible ways to stay engaged on helping people affected by conflict. One way is to provide increased resettlement places in New Zealand as well as vital funding to UN humanitarian appeals. Another way is to strengthen New Zealand’s support for the International Criminal Court and other accountability mechanisms (for example the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, or a future mechanism to prosecute attacks on Syria’s hospitals). It remains crucial to send a clear message that war crimes have consequences and those who have committed such crimes will be prosecuted. Will our government have the courage to put more money where its mouth is?

More broadly speaking, it may well be time for a foreign policy that has a stronger focus on human rights promotion and crisis prevention abroad. While on the Council, New Zealand made conflict prevention a focal point of its efforts; as such, there’s now widespread understanding among policy- and decision-makers that repression, torture and shrinking space for civil society are well-known precursors to more serious violence. Given that New Zealand is surrounded by a growing number of countries that curb human rights (e.g. China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam) it is vital for our leaders to take on a new tone and voice clear public criticism of abuse, for instance when furthering trade relations. We urgently need countries like New Zealand to advocate the concerns of local rights defenders in the public domain.        

It’s been a rough two years full of accomplishments, failures and lessons to learn. But no matter what New Zealand’s post-UNSC foreign policy may look like in detail - it is important to remind ourselves that sharing responsibility for international peace and security will always mean sharing responsibility for human rights.

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