Six months into its membership of the UN Security Council, New Zealand will get to wield the gavel at the famed horseshoe table in New York over the course of this month.
Occupying the president's chair will be the Kiwi's new Permanent Representative, Gerard van Bohemen, a refreshingly direct and down-to-earth diplomat who served as deputy head of the mission the last time New Zealand was on the Security Council in the early 1990s. He has taken over from the newly knighted Sir Jim McLay, a former deputy prime minister who commanded New Zealand's successful UN Security Council campaign and last month took up a new position as the country's representative to the Palestinian Authority.
So far New Zealand's big play on the council, to draft a resolution setting out parameters for a final Middle East peace deal, has come to nought. France and Jordan, the representative of the Arab states, have produced resolutions of their own, and have told New Zealand that a third draft would complicate their efforts. But the Arab League sees July as an opportunity to push for such a resolution, increasing international pressure on Israel, knowing that New Zealand will give it a sympathetic hearing.
New Zealand's Foreign Minister Murray McCully has not given up hope the Kiwis can help spur the Israelis and Palestinians into action, distant though that possibility seems.
Earlier this year, as relations between Washington and Jerusalem soured, the Obama Administration signaled that it might finally countenance such a resolution, partly in diplomatic retaliation for Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before Congress, in which he lambasted the nuclear deal with Iran. In recent weeks, the US has resumed its traditional role of protecting Israel at the UN, although it's also been deliberately ambiguous on whether it would veto a European-backed resolution.
'Up until this point, we have pushed away against European efforts,' Barack Obama told Israel's Channel Two in early June. But the President also noted that America's support for Israel at the UN was complicated by the widespread perception within the international community that Netanyahu was no longer serious about a two-state solution.
Benjamin Netanyahu, after meeting Murray McCully in Jerusalem earlier this month, sounded a warning to New Zealand and others pushing for a Middle East peace resolution. 'The main thing we have learned,' the Israeli Prime Minister said pointedly, 'is that peace is achieved, as we did with Jordan and with Egypt, through direct negotiations between parties, and not by fiat.' But the very fact that Israel is even paying attention to New Zealand is testament to the diplomatic clout that comes with membership of the Security Council. On the most nettlesome international issue of them all, Wellington* has become a significant player, if not a decisive or central one.
The presidency of the Security Council gives members the chance to push their pet projects, and New Zealand will seek to promote the interests of small island developing states, or SIDS as they are known in an organisation addicted to acronyms. The viability of South Pacific tuna fishermen rarely gets an airing in Turtle Bay, but that could change in late July when New Zealand convenes a thematic debate chaired by Murray McCully, at which small island states can bring their concerns to the table.
The last time New Zealand presided over the Council, the genocide in Rwanda dominated proceedings (the New Zealanders argued forcefully for the UN not to flea Rwanda). This time, the overriding international issue looks set to be the nuclear deal with Iran, the original deadline for which was yesterday, though it looks to have been extended by a week. Given that all the P5 members are signatories to the framework deal, the Security Council is expected to rubber-stamp any agreement. But New Zealand, in its presidential role, will be involved in the nuts and bolts of the oversight provisions and the relaxation of UN sanctions.
New Zealand's diplomats, though refusing to benchmark themselves against their trans-Tasman rivals, were impressed with how Australia approached its two years on the council. The former Aussie Ambassador Gary Quinlan and his team showed what a temporary member could achieve. As the influential Jerusalem Post noted last month, in language that will sound familiar to Australian ears, New Zealand could hardly be regarded as a 'diplomatic heavyweight', but its membership of the Security Council means it is 'punching above its weight.'
* My apologies. This piece has been corrected after I inadvertently relocated the New Zealand capital. Not only am I aware that Wellington is the home of government, but also of the finest coffee shop I have ever had the good fortune to visit, which is just across the road from the Beehive. I have not only apologised to the New Zealand ambassador in person, but also to my Kiwi-born wife.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.