Political editor Audrey Young spoke to New Zealand diplomat Gerard van Bohemen while he was back in New Zealand for a break.

New Zealand diplomat Gerard van Bohemen sits on the United Nations Security Council as New Zealand's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. New Zealand's two-year term ends at the end of 2016.

Q. How would you sum up the second year on the Council? How is it different?

It's different in the sense that we are now in our second year and you are conscious that the finish line is coming closer and that your time to do things is constrained, different in the sense that you are much more confident about, what's going on, how the council manages business and how you can influence both process and hopefully outcomes.
I guess we are also conscious that we've got to makes sure that the things we have set as our priorities get reflected in the last part of our time on the council.

Q. Do you have a sense of panic that you're not going to get what you want done?

United Nations Security Council. Photo / UN
United Nations Security Council. Photo / UN

No but I think you do get a sense that the opportunities will start to close in if you don't get moving on them. Not panicking yet. My experience last because I have the advantage of having been here before [1993 - 94], the experience last time was that your influence in some respect wanes as the finish comes closer but particularly in respect of issues that require significant change in behaviours of the permanent members or things that will have a continual significance after you are gone. People will wait you out if they don't feel like going there.

But on the day to day business, we don't feel we are any less influential now than before, and in fact this is probably the time of greatest influence, when you are an experienced elected member.

Q. On the issues where you might be "waited out", is that what is happening with the Middle East resolution?

No, not yet. I think the issue of the Middle East resolution is a bigger one and the timing relates as much to the US Administration. They are on a finite period because [President] Obama is out at the year. And the question is whether they are prepared to put the effort into getting something through before they go. That's something which we are wanting to explore. We think there is a need for a Middle East resolution yet what we found last year is the US didn't think action by the Security Council would be helpful. But they had other priorities at that time in relations to Iran and in Syria. But with the situation changing there and with the [Israeli] settlements continuing, there is a genuine and pretty widespread concern that the peace process won't get under way if there is no prospect for a two-state solution and it is slowly being eroded by the settlements.

Q. What good would a Security Council do on that score?

It depends what it is. If it's a resolution that re-establishes the peace process, that would be the maximal good but we don't see that as likely in the short term. But the council has the authority, if it sets up a process and everyone buys into it, to get the peace negotiations going again.

Short of that, there is a desire on behalf of us and others to say that we need to at least re-signal the need for the two-state solution to be kept alive because there is a concern that the dynamic in Israel in particular, they are heading down a road that is slowly eroding that possibility.

The council can't stop the [Israeli] settlements of itself but it can certainly give a very strong signal that they should stop


Q. If Israel ignores it, why don't they have sanctions applied?

That question has been raised by others. The chances of getting a sanctions resolutions through the council are not rated very high at the moment. That is a question that is certainly out there. There are existing resolutions. The last time there was a resolution, the fight was over whether they should be called ''illegal" or "illegitimate." The strong view of most members of the United Nations is that settlements are contrary to international law. That's our view as well. The United States hasn't been prepared to endorse language along those lines in recent times.

Q. Who minds the shop when you are back here?

Carolyn Schwalger, one of two deputies. Photo / MFAT
Carolyn Schwalger, one of two deputies. Photo / MFAT

I have two deputies, Carolyn Schwalger and Phillip Taula. As it happened, one week of my absence coincided with a council visiting mission to West Africa which Phillip went on for New Zealand and the council itself didn't meet during that week.

Q. What has been the most positive accomplishment of the Council since you have been on it?

I suppose in real world terms, the Iran deal was the most positive because council action was essential to give effect to the negotiated outcome even if the negotiations happened away from the council. The council's authority was needed both to lift the sanctions but also to put in place this complicated arrangement whereby, if Iran doesn't comply with the deal, the sanctions would snap back into place. That was a very significant achievement. The next one, I think, has been the pressure the council has been able to bring to bear on Syria to bring the cessation of hostilities about. The council is far from the only actor in this area. The International Syria Support Group is the key international negotiating feature and the cessation was actually negotiated between the United States and Russia. We were part of that. We gave international endorsement to the outcome but the actual negotiations were done outside the council. But that's just world realities; you work with what you have got.

From the New Zealand point of view, the resolutions we have adopted on humanitarian access, particularly to besieged areas and hard to access areas in Syria were significant. It was a significant achievement to get the resolution renewed at the end of last year with stronger language on access into besieged and hard to reach areas. Its relevance became immediately apparent in January when the publicity came on to Maydaya and as a result of the work we have been doing, the situation has improved markedly for a good percentage of the people in those areas. But there is still a significant percentage yet o receive aid despite the cessation of hostilities. Some of those are in areas besieged by ISIL...but it is progress in the broader sense in Syria.

Q. Just back to Iran - do you think their recent ballistic missile tests contravene any Security Council resolution?

Javad Zarif and John Key. Photo / Audrey Young
Javad Zarif and John Key. Photo / Audrey Young

This is quite a technical area. It called upon Iran not to use ballistic missiles capable of using nuclear weapons. Iran says, first off, that that is not binding language and I think even the United States accepts that. And secondly Iran asserts that the missiles are not capable of carrying nuclear weapons even if it was a binding call. As far as we know, that seems to be right. One of the things that was not given much attention to but [foreign minister] Javad Zarif referred to it when he was here in New Zealand and that was that Iran doesn't have a huge standing army. It seems to have decided to use missiles as one of its deterrent weapons. So it is weapon of self-defence for it. The trouble is, the Revolutionary Guards in particular keep making reference to Israel. They have got other enemies besides Israel; the fought a war with Iraq not so long ago and there are significant armies in the vicinity. Missiles of themselves are not necessarily more evil than other weapons. The question is how they use them and what they are intended to be done with them.

Even so, launching the missiles just as the Iran nuclear deal was being bedded down and with the incendiary slogans about Israel painted on the missiles was most unhelpful - both to the implementation of the nuclear deal and to wider efforts to promote Middle East peace.

Q. Where you surprised at Russia's sudden pull-out of Syria?

Putin withdrew troops from Syria. Photo / AP
Putin withdrew troops from Syria. Photo / AP

Yes. I think everybody was surprised by it. Surprised but not completely, for two reasons. One is that if you thought ahead, where was the end game for Russia by just sitting there. They needed to find a way out. They've taken a surprising quick way out. They did change the nature of facts on the ground and leveraged themselves as being one of the indispensable players in the Syria resolution now, but the continued presence of a significant force could have made life much more difficult for them further ahead. The second one is that the Russian economy has been suffering quite significantly because of the collapse of oil and gas prices as well as the sanctions from the US and the Europeans. So maintaining a significant force offshore would itself be quite a significant. So there was probably some economic advantage in shutting it down.

Q. Does the Security Council have any interests in what is going on in the South China Seas?

It hasn't been raised as a peace and security issue. It could come before the council if somebody referred it and particularly if there was an incident that suggested a flashpoint and some tensions. Of course we know that China doesn't want that coming anywhere near the Security Council but if there was an incident, and a significant one, there could well be a call to put it on the council's agenda. That is not a veto-able decision. That's a procedural decision. So China can't stop it coming if there was sufficient impetus. They [and the Permanent Five Members] can veto an outcome. If you think about North Korea, human rights, there was a procedural vote on whether that should be on the council's agenda. China voted against it but it continued to be there.

Q. Looking ahead, what are your priorities in the coming months?

Injured doctors after the Kunduz bombing. Photo / AP
Injured doctors after the Kunduz bombing. Photo / AP

The Middle East peace process is obviously one that the Minster [Murray McCully] attaches a lot of importance to. Whether something is possible, we will have to find out. There's conversations to be had with the United States, and also with the other council players.

The views of Egypt will be very influential because they are the Arab member of the Security Council as well as the Arab country that did the most significant peace deal with Israel.

Secondly Syria; we want to make sure that the peace process continues. We've got the negotiations just getting underway in Geneva now but we want to make sure the council keeps its eye on that and keeps things moving. In relation to that as well, we want to keep our eye on the humanitarian situation.

Thirdly, a group of countries, not just New Zealand, have raised the question about whether there should be some humanitarian product on Yemen because the situation there is about as bad as it got to in Syria. That is actively under consideration now.
There's a group of elected members including Spain and Egypt and Japan and Malaysia working with us on that. We are also looking at a resolution on healthcare workers and healthcare facilities, calling for respect for international humanitarian law and stopping attacks on hospitals and medical workers.

This is a problem that has become more prevalent in a number of conflicts. You obviously had the famous incident in Kunduz in Afghanistan in which the United States accepted responsibility for. But you have had a number of hospitals struck by bombs in Syria and in Yemen.

It has also been a problem in South Sudan. We think there is a case for the council to draw attention to this because it is troubling that the rules of war, for want of a better term, or law of armed conflict is not being respected in some very basic ways.

Those are our key priorities as well as the general question of conflict prevention which are words easily said. We can all pay lip-service to the amount of resource that could be saved and lives saved if the council was more effective in stopping the fighting but actually giving effect to that is proving very difficult.

But we are still keen to see what more we can do it that area. And keeping an eye as well on a number of situations in Africa: this year South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi are the highlight ones but there is also Somalia, the Central African Republic and Mali. There's plenty to keep us busy.

Q. And a huge week in September?

Yes in September we have the Prime Minister coming for leaders' week. We hope that we can have an event in the council that complements whatever is happening more generally in leaders' week and provides an opportunity for council senior leaders' to get together but as to what that will be, it is still under consideration.