Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has given her first statement to the UN General Assembly, with a gentle rebuttal of US President Donald Trump's criticism of the UN and rejection of 'globalism' in favour of patriotism.

Ardern used her opportunity at the UN to highlight what a crumbling of multilateralism would mean for countries such as New Zealand and the Pacific, especially on climate change.

"Any disintegration of multilateralism – any undermining of climate related targets and agreements – aren't interesting footnotes in geopolitical history. They are catastrophic."

Although her speech never mentions Trump by name, Ardern joins the club of leaders who have used their speeches to hit back at the US President, some more vigorously than others.

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While Jacinda Ardern delivered her speech at the United Nations her partner Clarke Gayford holds their baby Neve. Photo / AFP
While Jacinda Ardern delivered her speech at the United Nations her partner Clarke Gayford holds their baby Neve. Photo / AFP

Trump's speech hit out at the UN as he drummed the 'America First' message and urged other countries not to cede sovereignty to an unelected bureaucracy.

Those other leaders fighting back include French President Emmanuel Macron, who delivered a thundering defence of globalism, and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Ardern began by saying that on her first visit to the UNGA, she had been struck by the power and potential of the place.

She said New Zealand had always been aware of that, given its geographical isolation.

"I have no doubt though, that our geographic isolation has contributed to our values.

"We are a self-deprecating people. We're not ones for status.

"We'll celebrate the local person who volunteers at their sports club as much as we will the successful entrepreneur. Our empathy and strong sense of justice is matched only by our pragmatism.

"We are, after all, a country made up of two main islands - one simply named North and the other, South.

"For all of that, our isolation has not made us insular."

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Ardern held a Maori comb for orators which was gifted to her by Ngāti Rehia on a visit to Waitangi in February.

Ardern's comb, a gift from Ngāti Rehia.
Ardern's comb, a gift from Ngāti Rehia.

She said she had grown up in the 1980s and had learned about her own country by the way it reacted to international events - from apartheid in South Africa to nuclear testing in the Pacific.

"Whether it was taking to the streets or changing our laws, we have seen ourselves as members of a community, and one that we have a duty to use our voice within."

Ardern's statement - as with those of many leaders before her - amounted to an attempt to rebut US President Donald Trump's statement which had lambasted the UN and the multilateral way it worked.

Ardern said the UN was at the heart of the international community and ran by a set of international norms and human rights.

"All of these are an acknowledgement that we are not isolated, governments do have obligations to their people and each other, and that our actions have a global effect.

"Given the challenges we face today, and how truly global they are in their nature and impact, the need for collective action and multilateralism has never been clearer."

Jacinda Ardern used her opportunity at the UN to highlight what a crumbling of multilateralism would mean for countries such as New Zealand and the Pacific, especially on climate change. Photo / AP
Jacinda Ardern used her opportunity at the UN to highlight what a crumbling of multilateralism would mean for countries such as New Zealand and the Pacific, especially on climate change. Photo / AP

Ardern pointed to climate change as one of those challenges.

She said there were was concern about generational demands, pointing to the trend of younger generations expressing dissatisfaction with political systems.

"And if we're looking for an example of where the next generation is calling on us to make that change, we need look no further than climate change."

She urged other countries to put self-interest aside, and highlighted the plight of the Pacific, where rising sea levels are imperilling many small islands.

"We can talk all we like about the science and what it means, what temperature rises we need to limit in order to survive, but there is a grinding reality in hearing someone from a Pacific island talk about where the sea was when they were a child, and potential loss of their entire village as an adult.

"Our action in the wake of this global challenge remains optional. But the impact of inaction does not. Nations like Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, or Kiribati – small countries who've contributed the least to global climate change – are and will suffer the full force of a warming planet.

"If my Pacific neighbours do not have the option of opting out of the effects of climate change, why should we be able to opt out of taking action to stop it?"

Ardern said New Zealand was determined to play its part, setting out decision to halt oil and gas exploration and investment in green technology.

"But we only represent less than 0.2 per cent of global emissions.

"That's why, as a global community, not since the inception of the United Nations has there been a greater example of the importance of collective action and multilateralism, than climate change. It should be a rallying cry to all of us."

The Prime Minister said she was not arguing that the UN system was perfect, but it could be improved and urged the UN to be "ambitious" in reforming itself.

Ardern said New Zealand would support reform, and continued with her predecessors' calls for changes to the Security Council to ensure it was not hamstrung by the veto powers of the five permanent members.

Ardern also raised women's rights, saying she had never felt hindered by being a woman.

"But for all of that, we still have a gender pay gap, an over representation of women in low paid work, and domestic violence. And we are not alone.

"It seems surprising that in this modern age we have to recommit ourselves to gender equality, but we do.

"Me Too must become We Too.

"We are all in this together."

She concluded by calling for a "step back from the chaos" and more kindness.

"In the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism – the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any.

"So let's start here with the institutions that have served us well in times of need, and will do so again."