John Key took to the stage at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday with an old message, made urgent by the crisis in Syria. Nearly 70 years after former Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser argued at the formation of the UN against the Great Powers granting vetos for themselves at the Security Council, Mr Key stridently criticised their misuse of power today.
UN institutions like the council had become "hostage to their own traditions and to the interests of the most powerful".
New Zealand is bidding for a seat on the Security Council in 2015. It is clear the Government does not intend to win votes by staying mute on the contentious threat of the veto by Russia and China to prevent action against Syria.
Mr Key used New Zealand's address to the General Assembly to scold the UN organisation for its impotence on world problems. "The gap between aspiration and delivery is all too apparent, as the situation in Syria has again so brutally reminded us," he said. Syria was primarily to blame for its own humanitarian tragedy, but the permanent members of the Security Council had shielded the Assad regime, making the wider UN a "powerless bystander" to the tragedy. "Thereby reconfirming the fears of New Zealand and others who had opposed the veto at the original San Francisco conference in 1945."
The Prime Minister's criticisms at both the beginning and the end of his speech were made in the context of a New Zealand candidacy promising to improve the way the UN does business. "From the 1950s through into the 1990s we could blame the Cold War when the Security Council did not act. That does not wash today. The problems are more systemic and relate both to the composition as well as the formal and informal processes of the council."
New Zealand is positioning itself as an agent of change and a voice for small states Mr Fraser so ably represented 68 years ago. We face a contest with Turkey and Spain.
United Nations reform is fraught with difficulty. The number of member nations has increased greatly since 1945 but the Security Council's permanent membership has remained absurdly constant: the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain and China. Temporary membership expanded once, from 6 to 10 nations. The five powers have no interest in giving up their power of veto - which applies not only to issues of global security but also to votes on changes to the UN Charter.
For decades, Germany and Japan, excluded after World War II but now high on the list of contributor nations to the UN, have argued for inclusion as permanent members. Emerging powers Brazil and India have also made a case for seats. Expansion of the wider council is mooted too.
New Zealand's campaign, it seems, is one based on independence, commitment to multilateral institutions and a willingness to agitate on behalf of the small nations of the world. "There is no point in joining the council simply to make up the numbers," Mr Key said in New York. "Sometimes, you have to speak up and shine a light on what is going on, or not going on, even when that may be inconvenient to others.' He is right and, like Mr Fraser, has chosen straight talk over diplomatic double-speak. The case for reform was made long ago.