When the longest-serving diplomat on the UN Security Council, Russia's Vitaly Churkin, died of a heart attack last month, the council "noted" his passing, said New Zealand ambassador Gerard van Bohemen.

There had been a move to have a more formal statement but the Ukrainians, who held the presidency at the time, had not been prepared to go along with it.

It is typical of the power-plays on the Security Council, on which New Zealand sat for two years.

For UN insiders in New York, Churkin's 10 years on the council made him a dominating presence, and a fellow diplomat whom van Bohemen got to know after sitting next to him for most of next year.

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"He was a consummate professional, sometimes a bully, but often funny," van Bohemen told the Herald during a visit home this week.

"I really warmed to him as a person. I respected him and I liked him. "

Churkin was also controversial and frustrating. He exercised Russia's veto in July 2015 on an international tribunal to look at the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine, during a debate chaired by Foreign Minister Murray McCully when New Zealand held the presidency.

The Russian was also involved in what was one of the Kiwi's personal high points during the term.

"The note of highest drama for me was when I took Churkin on in early December ... when the UN reported back as to what was happening on the ground [in Syria] and he attacked the veracity of the UN report."

In an unscripted speech which evidently impressed the US representative, van Bohemen responded vigorously saying he believed the UN rather than a party to the conflict.
"Later on Samantha Power embraced me and called me her hero."

Russia's Vitaly Churkin who died last month.
Russia's Vitaly Churkin who died last month.

Van Bohemen said there were times when he "went off piste and took some risks" and that had been one of them. There had been no time to check with Wellington or McCully on his line of attack.

"The minister was always supportive of the idea that we were there to make a difference, to try and make an impact and that we ought to call out bad behavior and he did himself when he was there occasionally, so I didn't think there was any political risk around that."

He said he believes New Zealand demonstrated during its two-year term as one of 10 elected members that it was competent, well-informed, willing to rock the boat and worth listening to.

The campaign to win an elected seat on the council and the two-year term itself had lifted New Zealand's engagement with a big range of countries.

Former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.
Former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

Arab countries respected what New Zealand did on Syria as well as co-sponsoring a Middle East resolution on the two-state solution in December, which has led to the recall of the Israeli ambassador from Wellington.

Egypt tabled the resolution and it attracted co-sponsorship from New Zealand, Malaysia, Senegal and Venezuela. Egypt then succumbed to pressure from then US President-elect Donald Trump to drop the resolution but the other countries maintained their sponsorship and it passed by 14 votes to one abstention, by the US.

"After it was all over we certainly got lots of congratulations that we were brave enough to stand our ground," van Bohemen said.

Gerard van Bohemen and Foreign Minister Murray McCully in New York. Photo Audrey Young
Gerard van Bohemen and Foreign Minister Murray McCully in New York. Photo Audrey Young

New Zealand worked strongly during the two years for a Security Council resolution on the Middle East and it would have been very odd if it had just stepped back from sponsoring it, he said.

"The resolution would have gone forward anyway and the result would have been the same and we would have voted the same."

He said African countries hadn't seen or heard much of New Zealand for 20 years. "They certainly respected what we did on the African issues more generally but also a willingness to stand out and be different."

"That's what we've become known for. The Dutch ambassador called it the Nike principle. 'Just do it.' "

"The conclusion I reached early on is that you can waste an awful lot of time trying to negotiate procedural outcomes to try and guide the way the council should work in the future but you won't actually achieve real change.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry during the debate on Syria. Photo NZ Herald
Former US Secretary of State John Kerry during the debate on Syria. Photo NZ Herald

"What you have to do is behavioural change by doing things differently."

New Zealand contributed often in unscripted ways to difficult debates, put forward proposals on difficult subjects and instigated informal council meetings at the start of each month's work programme.

He viewed the highlight for New Zealand on the council as being the debate chaired by former Prime Minister John Key on Syria in September last year; a debate that was scheduled well before the bombing of a UN aid convoy in Aleppo the week of the debate but which contributed to a tense exchange between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

"It was a moment of pretty high drama with Lavrov and Kerry going at each other," van Bohemen said.

"The fact that New Zealand had convened that was very significant in itself and it actually gave us an influence over the remaining months on Syria that we had struggled to achieve beforehand on the political side."

The second highlight had been the debate for the small island developing states the year before.

Former Prime Minister John Key and former Prime Minister Helen Clark discussing her bid to lead the UN. Photo Audrey Young
Former Prime Minister John Key and former Prime Minister Helen Clark discussing her bid to lead the UN. Photo Audrey Young

Asked about McCully's role in managing New Zealand's term on the council, he said: "He provided strong leadership and for the most part he didn't try to micro-manage what we did. As long as we kept him informed of the main lines of engagement he seemed pretty content for us to get on with our business. That's as we saw it at the New York end."

He was not sure whether it was seen that way in Wellington.

"The fact that he was closely involved and did come to New York a lot and was seen to be closely following the council actually was an asset to me because people knew that I had close political interest and, therefore, they assume, political support for the positions I was taking."

Asked about former Prime Minister Helen Clark's campaign last year to become UN Secretary-General while New Zealand was on the Security Council, van Bohemen said it did not change anything policy-wise.

"It certainly added a significant operational burden on the office.

"It certainly challenged relationships when you were realising you are probably not being told the truth about where their support lies."

Van Bohemen said he now had to adjust to the new reality in New York of not being on the Security Council but his focus was a UN oceans conference in mid-year and negotiations on a convention on the prohibition of nuclear weapons, but naturally he missed the Security Council.

"You can't help but miss it because it was exciting. It was obviously frustrating; people use that word all the time in relation to the Security Council.

"But it is still the biggest platform or stage that New Zealand gets to operate on and it was exciting to be there."