Delivered by Brook Barrington, Chief Executive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Excellencies, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen

I have been asked to speak to you this evening about New Zealand’s current experience on the United Nation’s Security Council, and what we are seeking to achieve over the two years of our tenure.

Let me begin, however, by positioning this topic in the context of New Zealand’s broader international interests, and the role that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade plays in advancing these.

At its most fundamental, the Ministry acts in the world to make New Zealanders safer and more prosperous.  This is done directly – for example, through our consular work supporting distressed New Zealanders overseas or by the negotiation of trade and security arrangements.  It is also done indirectly – for example, by upholding rules-based institutions and by our development assistance efforts. You might, in an age characterised by Skype or Face Time and the commodification of international travel, ask why making New Zealanders safer and more prosperous requires a foreign service with a global presence.

A basic answer is that formal relations between states, in times of ease but especially in times of tension, benefit from having mutually recognised and respected transmission mechanisms (Embassies), rules (the Vienna Convention), norms (governments do not lie to governments), and representatives who can authoritatively represent the state, negotiate on its behalf, and commit the state to formal undertakings (Ambassadors and High Commissioners). A more textured answer is that our national interests are best advanced if our negotiating partners trust us, and trust is founded in relationships, and relationships require familiarity (if not always mutual understanding), and familiarity requires a continuity of presence and a constancy of behaviour.  I should add that having people who understand the culture of the receiving state, who can identify even the smallest fragment of shared interest, and who can leverage such fragments into something bigger is also useful - and these are not things easily or enduringly achieved by sporadic contact from a distance.

Taking these two answers together, it might be said that diplomacy is the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between Governments (as said by Satow).  Or you might prefer Napoleon, who said that diplomacy is the police in grand costume. Either way it is a personal art as much as it is a professional science, and as such best conducted face to face.

If you talk to any foreign service officer, from any jurisdiction, it will not take long before they start talking about the importance of relationships. Indeed, I have just done so myself.  But I do want to be clear: relationships are a means to an end, they are not ends in themselves.  The quality of a collegial diplomatic  relationship, or a relationship between states (as if states can be anthropomorphised in this way), might be personally gratifying but they will only be professionally meaningful if they help us to advance the direct and indirect interests of New Zealand.

And those interests are wide-ranging, and have been wide-ranging for most of our modern history.  Migration.  Empire.  War.  Peace.  Trade.  Values.  Anxiety.  Technology. All of these things and more have seen New Zealand play an active role in regional and international affairs which belies our small population and our relative isolation.

As a small country with global interests and a beneficiary of international peace and security, we benefit from a rules-based system which (by and large) extends to every sovereign state, regardless of size or strength, the same rights. As an Asia-Pacific country, we benefit directly from the security, stability and prosperity of the region.  As a global trading nation, we benefit from a robust international rules-based trading system.  As a member of the international community, we benefit from good stewardship of the global commons, including on issues such as climate change, oceans, Antarctica, resource stewardship, counter-terrorism and radicalisation, and the challenges facing small island developing states.

As a country light on critical mass, we benefit from meaningful connections with others in our region and globally, whether through people-to people connections, or the sharing of ideas, or trade. It is to advance interests such as these, and to leverage our national reputation for objectivity, fair-mindedness, professionalism and constructive engagement in the resolution of difficult problems, that New Zealand campaigned for (and secured) a seat on the Security Council.

Getting elected

Security Council seats have, over the two decades since we last served, become more difficult and complicated to secure. That a small country not physically located close to most of the members in its electoral group (with Australia, Canada and the US, we are the “others” in the Western European and Others Group) managed to secure 75% of the UN vote against diplomatic heavyweights such as Spain and Turkey is a result worth pondering.

New Zealand’s electoral success speaks to the priority which the Government placed on our candidacy, the fact that we ran a well-organised campaign, and the reputation which New Zealand has long-enjoyed as an engaged and constructive and creative participant in international affairs. We stood on our record, and were successful.

Through our election New Zealand challenged the narrative that to get elected you need a lot of money and a large diplomatic network.  Instead, the value proposition underlying our campaign was simple: the crucial thing New Zealand could guarantee any UN member state was that if an issue of importance to them was to come to the UN Security Council, we would give them a fair hearing.

So what is it like?

Having worked hard to get on the Council, and recognising it could be another 20 years before we attempt to get on again, Ministers have made clear that they want our Council membership to mean something. They have no interest in New Zealand being a passenger on the Council.  Nor should we be.

In terms of what New Zealand wants to achieve, I would respond first and foremost that ‘we want to make a positive difference to the work of the Security Council, both in what it does and how it does it’. Additionally, and as a consequence, New Zealand wants to leave the Council with our own international standing enhanced.

We are nearly a quarter of the way through our two year term, and there is no doubt that the range, complexity and tempo of the international issues requiring the attention of the Government and the Ministry is greater than at any point in my experience.  It is a remarkable time to be a New Zealand foreign service officer, and for an organisation that today has a relatively large number of newish staff the benefits of our time on the Council extend to building and reinforcing habits of professionalism, tradecraft, and collegiality.

Nor is there any doubt that in New York, and across New Zealand’s diplomatic network, doors are open to us that are normally difficult for a New Zealand diplomat to get through.  Countries want to hear our views on issues before the Council. Equally usefully, they want to tell us their views.  We have become more relevant and more interesting to a dizzying range of others.  Thus it was that on his recent trip to the Middle East the Minister of Foreign Affairs secured calls on the president of Egypt, the Prime Minister of Israel, and the President of the Palestinian Authority.

The months since taking up our seat have, therefore, not been quiet. Since returning to MFAT in March, I have joined my colleagues in scaling the learning curve which has required us better to understand the interests and policy complexities involved in issues as diverse as the Middle East Peace Process, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Congo, the Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan, and Burundi.  There has also been our deeper engagement in horizontal themes such as combating terrorism, ensuring the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations, and what the UN can do in situations where there is no peace to keep.

Delivering impact and influence as one of ten elected members on the Council is not without its challenges. Since 1945 the Council has evolved modes of operating that result in control of the substantive agenda being concentrated in the hands of a small number of countries. And there is the paradox that when the five Permanent members do agree something between themselves it can be hard to shift them, and when the Permanent five do not agree something between themselves then it can be hard to shift them. To have an impact as a non-Permanent member therefore requires a clear sense of where to invest our effort, deft diplomacy, an ability to build and leverage coalitions of interest, and a well-calibrated degree of ambition.

So where is New Zealand focusing its effort?

Next month in New York, New Zealand will be President of the Security Council – this will put us at the centre of events such as follow-up to the outcomes of the Secretary General’s Peace Operations Review, the Cyprus and Iraq mandate renewals, the 12 month anniversary of the MH17 downing, the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the next Middle East Peace Process open debate, and quite possibly the Iran P5+1 negotiations. 

It will also be when New Zealand has the opportunity to put topics of importance to us on the Council’s agenda. In line with our campaign undertakings, New Zealand will organise an open debate on the peace and security challenges to Small Island Developing States (SIDS). his will give the many Small Island Developing States in the Pacific, Caribbean, and in the Indian and Atlantic oceans, the opportunity to put before the Council the various challenges that they face, ranging from the theft of natural resources, to climate change, to transnational crime and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.   These are not the usual issues considered by the Council, and that is partly the point.  They reflect the reality of the threats posed to small and isolated communities.  We believe it is timely and appropriate that their concerns are heard at the top table of the UN. We will also be seeking to advance an issue that which is already being discussed in the General Assembly in the wider context of Security Council reform, and which New Zealand has been active in pressing since Peter Fraser at the San Francisco conference in 1945, namely the working methods of the Security Council and, in particular, the use of the veto and how it affects Council practice. This is a subject which benefits little from public grand-standing.  We will therefore be seeking to facilitate a constructive engagement with Permanent Members, to discuss a set of issues that continue to be of interest to the wider membership of the United Nations and which go to the reputation and effectiveness of the international community’s central multilateral institution. I should add that it is not possible to be a member of the Security Council without also exploring ways to make a constructive contribution to easing the multiple tensions and hardships in the Middle East.

New Zealand with Jordan and Spain is joint lead on Security Council consideration of humanitarian issues in Syria, building on work undertaken last year by Australia and Luxembourg, in partnership  as well with Jordan.   Syria remains one of the most tragic issues on the Council agenda. Minister McCully has described it is a “weeping sore” and a stain on the UN’s name because of the Council’s inability to deal with the conflict.   New Zealand’s efforts on the humanitarian front are focused on trying to alleviate the suffering of those innocent people caught up in this brutal conflict.  How can we access besieged areas to ascertain the severity of the situation and ensure there is an appropriate humanitarian response? How can we ensure the principles of medical neutrality are abided by? How can the Council make the lives of the people living this tragedy more bearable?  These are questions we are pushing the Council to address despite the stalemate on the political front.   The Government is also giving some thought as to how New Zealand might most helpfully contribute to energising the Middle East Peace Process.  Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is one of the most long-standing and intractable issues on the Council’s agenda.  You might wonder why New Zealand has taken it up. There are a number of reasons. 

First, resolving that issue is a key – though no longer the only key – to peace in the Middle East.

Secondly, it is an issue that has been dealt with largely away from the Council, even though its resolution is of importance to the entire UN membership, and even though the convening power of the United Nations Security Council and the good offices of the Secretary General can provide support to the kind of bilateral negotiations that are ultimately required to resolve this problem.  

Thirdly, it would not be conscionable for a country like New Zealand to spend two years on the Council without giving serious thought as to how we might best contribute to the cause of peace in the Middle East.

Minister McCully is therefore conducting quiet but determined diplomacy in this space, supported by New Zealand’s diplomatic network. New Zealand is not seeking necessarily to play a leading role on this issue.  We will put our weight behind any initiative that stands a chance of success.  But we are also putting thought into how we can best give life to our campaign promise to be an engaged and constructive and creative member of the Security Council, including on the difficult issues.

Success / Leverage

I am enough of a mercantilist to hope that at the end of our two years on the Security Council we will have secured for New Zealand some lasting diplomatic benefits.

One of these has already been mentioned:  the testing and strengthening of our diplomatic skills within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  Another has been hinted at:  the working in partnership between a highly experienced foreign minister and a diplomatic network that is active, well-connected, well-respected and driving for results. In addition, at the end of our term we want to ensure that the Council as a whole has a much more complete understanding of the challenges facing Small Island Developing States and the issues of importance to them.  New Zealand has deep experience with island states in the Pacific, and we want to see what commonalities, and differences, exist between them and the broader collection of SIDS in the Caribbean, Atlantic and Indian oceans.   I am also deeply struck by how much the Security Council campaign, and our subsequent membership, has led us increasingly to understand the interests, concerns and potential of the fifty-four countries of Africa.  Five of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are African. In calendar year 2014, New Zealand exported NZ$ 2.1 billion of merchandise to Africa.  To put this in context, we exported NZ$ 2.9 billion of goods to Japan in 2014 and NZ$ 1.7 billion to South Korea (our 4th and 5th largest country export markets respectively).  And I am told that there are more diplomats in Addis Ababa, where we have recently opened a high performing and invaluable Embassy, than in Brussels.

Being on the Council has therefore given us an unparalleled opportunity to better understand and engage with a number of countries whose affluence and influence are likely only to grow.  I daresay that we sooner or later would have extended our diplomatic frontier into Africa in a more determined way, but our membership of the Security Council has been a powerful catalyst, giving us access and insights into the concerns of the countries of Africa that we would not have enjoyed otherwise.  I anticipate that this will be of enduring benefit to New Zealand, driven by, and in support of, interests that go well beyond our Security Council tenure. Perhaps most important of all, we want to end our two years on the Council having enhanced our reputation for being an engaged and constructive and creative participant in international affairs. Being on the Security Council is serious diplomacy. It is a responsibility, and one not to be taken lightly.  We must, and will, discharge our duty well.


The San Francisco conference of 1945, at which the UN Charter was created, was formally entitled the United Nations Conference on International Organisation.

The relevance of international organisation, based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all Members, who shall fulfil in good faith the obligations assumed by them in international law, is more obvious today than ever before.  For as Henry Kissinger wrote in 1994, ‘international systems live precariously.  Every “world order” expresses an aspiration to permanence....  Yet the elements which comprise it are in constant flux....  Never before have the components of world order, their capacity to interact, and their goals changed quite so rapidly, so deeply, or so globally.’  And much more has changed in the twenty years since he penned those words. But I do not want to trip lightly over the first step of what the UN Charter makes clear is a two-step dance.  Any notion of an international system, or of world order, is rooted in the Westphalian concept of the state, independent and sovereign . Michael Howard, formerly Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, wrote in 1989 that ‘the fundamental problems of the twenty-first century will not be those of traditional power confrontations.  They are more likely to arise out of the integration, or disintegration, of states themselves....  Our long-term challenge is that of maintaining cohesion in increasingly heterogeneous societies where traditional national loyalties are widely regarded as anachronistic or irrelevant.’

Taking Kissinger and Howard together – an unlikely a pairing – there is national and supra-national benefit to be had (and comfort to be taken) from institutions which have a clear purpose, which are based on enduring values, which are robust and respected, and which are focused on upholding safety and prosperity ‘in larger freedom’.  New Zealand’s tenure on the Security Council, and the work of the Government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade over that period and thereafter, are at their most essential directed at reaffirming that central truth.  

Thank you.