Political editor Audrey Young spoke to Gerard van Bohemen in New York about chairing the Security Council, and about how a boy from the Hawkes Bay became one of NZ’s leading diplomats.

Until last week, most Kiwis would never have heard of Gerard van Bohemen.

Now everyone knows him, if not by name, then as the lucky fellow who now lives in an $11 million Manhattan apartment across the road from the United Nations.

He would rather be known as New Zealand's permanent representative to the UN, ambassador for short, who from tomorrow will chair the Security Council in New York for the next few weeks. He will also be the Security Council's public face for the next month as its spokesman.

Gerard van Bohemen will be the face of the Security Council.
Gerard van Bohemen will be the face of the Security Council.

The last time New Zealand was on the council, 1993-94, he was a deputy.

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He moved into his apartment at the weekend and says it is not as flash as the photos in the news media suggested. They were of a show home. The New Zealander's apartment is "quite utilitarian".

As a 59-year-old seasoned diplomat, lawyer, and man of the world, he knows that that sort of publicity is common. But that doesn't mean he doesn't mind it.

"I hated it. It comes with the job but it is not something any civil servant goes out to court," he told the Herald.

Did you always want to be a diplomat?

No actually. I came to it somewhat by chance after I realised I was good at international law. Then Kenneth Keith suggested to me that I might think about applying [to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and I did. I was encouraged by Professor Quentin Quentin-Baxter as well. He was a professor of international law at Victoria but he was also one of the ministry's illustrious senior lawyers in the past.

What makes you good at international law?

It was simply the nature of international law. It's as much about politics as it is about law. You've got to try and understand what drives countries and work out how you can make the principles apply even in circumstances where there is no enforcement mechanism.

For hard-letter lawyers it is a frustrating discipline because you don't have a guaranteed court of appeal to go to for final decisions. Well, some things you can get before a court but a lot of things you can't so you depend on the application of principles and persuasiveness. I found that quite interesting.

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Are resolutions passed by the Security Council international law?

Some resolutions passed by the Security Council are international law. Under the UN charter, all UN members have undertaken to comply with Security Council decisions as a general proposition. When the council passes resolutions under chapter 7 of the charter for the maintenance of international peace and security, those decisions are binding on all countries.

You were a deputy ambassador last time New Zealand was on the Security Council. Have you harboured ambitions to get back there as the No1?

No, didn't think it [New Zealand] was ever likely to get back on the council for a long time. I left the ministry in 1995 and I didn't think I'd come back. Circumstances developed to the point that, in 2005, I left my law firm - I was working for Mai Chen for a year - and a position came up as head of the legal division in the ministry. At that point I realised we were seeking a seat again on the Security Council and I realised then it might be possible but it was a long way out - 10 years out. I didn't harbour an ambition so much as know it was a possibility.

What makes a good permanent representative [ambassador] on the Security Council?

A good permanent representative has to be across the issues and be prepared to be brave and to speak to the issues and be ready to react to the unexpected. If there's a problem in the council, too many permanent representatives just read pre-prepared scripts, even in the informal consultation. So that means your chance of having much impact is diminished because people can tell you are reading a prepared script. On some issues, prepared scripts mean a lot. If it's on a tense issue of the day it means a capital is talking. But quite often things are happening in a kind of evolutionary sense and the best permanent reps are those who are able to react to the moment.

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You've got to know what your government's general position is and be confident that what you are saying is consistent with their policy, but there might be something quite surprising you have to deal with straight away.

In your short time on the Security Council this time, what have been the most satisfying issues you've dealt with?

We haven't got to a satisfying one yet. Right now the council is struggling to deal with pretty nasty and serious problems. We haven't had a proper political discussion about Syria since I've been there. That will happen next month when the special representative comes to report back. But Syria is a disastrous situation.

Libya is another major problem. Yemen has been a major problem. In Africa you've got South Sudan, which has just imploded and no one knows how to get any leverage on that situation because you've got two leaders who seem intent on fighting despite the impacts on their population. And Burundi, there is a great deal of anxiety about what might happen there because you have got the same ethnic ingredients that caused the killing in Rwanda.

What would you like to have achieved by the end of July?

We'll have our Small Island Developing States' debate which should ensure that those issues have a prominence they haven't had up until now. We will also like to have what [Foreign Minister Murray] McCully is calling a respectful conversation around the use of the veto [by the permanent five members of the council] which isn't just about the veto itself but it's about the impact that the veto holders have on the council business and the way that they run things. I think it is quite important that we get to talk about that.

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What I want to achieve is two things: firstly, I want to run an efficient business because you're the chairman of the council and you want to do a good job making sure you get through things and I intend to run it in a fairly active way. Secondly, I'd like to achieve some small changes in the way we do things. A little more transparency is the word but what I mean by that is that there are fewer surprises. [When] people don't know what's going on in small rooms with small groups of people ... that's not conducive to good decision-making.

You have a phone meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs?

Yes, we talk most weekends and more than that with the presidency on. Those conversations are more about giving him the sense of the mood of place, where things are going. Obviously, we talk about important issues. His Middle Eastern initiatives are something we talk about but also I try to give him a sense of where the thinking of the council is going on various issues.

Can you tell me something about your upbringing. Both of my parents are immigrants. My father was Dutch and mother was English and they met in Wellington post World War II, both being assisted migrants after the war. They met in Wellington and moved to Hawkes Bay to give their children - yet to arrive - a good upbringing, which they did. They are both still alive. I'm 59. St John's College in Hastings was my secondary school.

My father was the local restaurateur. He ran what was called the Hawkes Bay Farmers' Tea Rooms, which was an institution in the '60s and '70s. The farmers brought their families in for lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays for the sales and he did the catering for their weddings and 21sts and anniversaries. He was often out doing three or four weddings on a Saturday night with his crew.

When did you move into the apartment?

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I moved in at the weekend. It doesn't look anything like the photos though. They were show home photos. It is very nice but it's not the penthouse.

It's not huge but it is very well configured so it will work well for diplomatic breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions because it is just across the road from the UN.

Why are those breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions so important to your work?

It's a chance to talk to people, get to know them, get to understand what is driving them, get to explain to them what you are about. The message of our campaign was that we were very successful at getting people to like New Zealand and New Zealanders. That's what diplomatic receptions are essentially about: getting to know people and having opportunities to engage with them.