Fran O'Sullivan: Key puts world on notice of NZ's strategy for UN

John Key plans to give more teeth to laws aimed at those who are attracted to the Isis cause. Photo / AP
John Key plans to give more teeth to laws aimed at those who are attracted to the Isis cause. Photo / AP

John Key was playing to a vital international audience when he said that New Zealand has an opportunity to make sure the United Nations Security Council lifts its game.

There were hints in Key's address to the Institute of International Affairs this week that he has big ambitions for New Zealand's time at the top table and is fully prepared to put this country's leadership and diplomats behind efforts to "ensure the longstanding and some would say intractable problems of the Middle East are addressed".

He didn't let Israel off - remarking on the high civilian casualties in Gaza and noting the lack of progress towards a two-state solution in relation to Palestine made the recruiters' task for extremist causes a significantly easier one. He did not cut the Iraqi leadership any slack and noted Iran's nuclear capabilities hung over the region.

The unmistakable message in his speech - which will be studied in capitals around the world as well as at the United Nations - is that the United Nations is failing when it comes to addressing Middle East instability.

This was patent in his comment on Syria. Key urged a redoubling of efforts to reach a political solution to the "violent stalemate".

"This has been another cause of Isil's rise and has seen almost 200,000 killed and led to more than three million Syrians fleeing their country."

The truth is the Security Council is often riven by sharp differences among its five permanent members when it comes to addressing major threats to international security; stepping in to prevent genocide on a massive scale or helping to broker and maintain peace.

NZ's campaign to get on to the council was framed as helping to give voice to the interests of smaller nations as well as playing the "honest broker" role that Foreign Minister Murray McCully has defined.

New Zealand will do that. But the tenor of Key's speech suggests that Jim McLay, who is NZ's representative on the council, will be given plenty of leeway to ensure that the independent NZ voice on foreign affairs that New Zealanders cherish is not compromised in New York.

Notable also was Key's stout defence of the Five Eyes partnership which began in World War II and has continued to give New Zealand access global reach on international security and intelligence issues that "we could never have achieved on our own".

Sure, most of the domestic news coverage focused on Key's announcements on the military front (No, he is not putting SAS boots on the ground in Iraq) and plans to give the SIS more powers to increase surveillance on foreign fighters in our own midst who are attracted to the Isis cause.

The speech is worth reading in full. It is sophisticated; well-thought through and combines caution with tempered risk. What is also notable is the difference that six weeks makes.

Key was punched up by conspiracy theorists and blindsided by leaks during the campaign when he came to talking about security issues. The Nick Hager echo chamber - "Five Eyes bad" - was amplified by the trio of US lawyer Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange that Kim Dotcom injected into the campaign in his Moment of Truth fiasco.

It is important that our security services do not overstep their powers and there have been some hard lessons learnt here on that front.

The trio - and Hager - raised concerns over the extent to which the NSA goes in surveilling other nations including ours. But when it come to establishing the national narrative on security risks and what steps our leaders take to combat them there needs to be a great deal less hysteria.

Case in point Greenwald's fatuous conjecture that his intention to release documents showing New Zealand had "spied" on neighbours and trading partners could affect our campaign for a seat on the Security Council.

Greenwald pledged to make sure that the world knew about NZ's transgressions before the United Nations voted on the new members for the council. Sure enough, Greenwald channelled more such information from the Wikileaks cache ahead of the vote. It created barely a ripple. And guess what? New Zealand got on to the Security Council on the first vote.

This episode reflects the inwards "island-style mentality" that undermines moves to hold a grown-up debate in New Zealand on security without the usual suspects resorting to open anti-Americanism.

We do not live in a benign environment. Globalisation has made the world flatter when it comes to trade. But when it comes to security, the lowering of national frontiers which comes with globalisation combined with new technologies has resulted in the crowd-sourcing of terrorism and a whole new bunch of threats that move across national borders with the speed of the internet.

The upshot is, as Key says, the use of social media to recruit fighters or terrorists is a game-changer for New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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