Though Helen Clark’s campaign to become UN Secretary General looks to have stalled, New Zealand’s bigger mission in New York, to make something of its time on the UN Security Council may have delivered more tangible dividends.

New Zealand’s two-year term is up in December and already attempts have begun to try and define a legacy.

In the meantime, Ms Clark’s campaign remains a distraction though one that may well be over within the next month or so.

Like almost everything else on the Security Council, the voting procedures for the Secretary General are opaque.

And though New Zealand diplomats who have been pushing Ms Clark’s case say they have received widespread support in their discussions with their counterparts from other countries, it is becoming clear that support is not translating into votes.

While the small team of New Zealand diplomats working on her campaign in New York have not given up hope, there is notably less bullish talk about her chances than there was even a month ago.

Ultimately the problem Ms Clark confronts on the Security Council is the same as New Zealand has always confronted at the UN and that is the dominant and privileged role played within it by the five permanent members of the Security Council who have a power of veto over any decision — including who should be Secretary General —  that the Council makes.


One of the goals that Foreign Minister Murray McCully set his diplomats when New Zealand won its seat in the Security Council two years ago was to work on Security Council reform, particularly the veto.

New Zealand’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Gerard van Bohemen, has attempted to bring the ten elected members of the Council together as a cohesive force to balance the Permanent Five members of the Council; the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France.


But he concedes that the elected members find it difficult to come together.

“They want to be, and they talk about it, but they are not very good at walking the talk,” he says.

“There are a whole of reasons that go into it, but it’s quite hard to keep the ten cohesive, and you probably can’t get ten together a lot, but you only need seven to be effective because that can stop a resolution.” (Under UN procedures, in the 15 seat Council, nine votes are required for a resolution to pass)

Van Bohemen has introduced one mechanism to try and bringing both the elected and permanent members together in a less rigidly formal environment than the Council meetings themselves.

Each Council member takes turns to be President of the Council and in July, 2015, when New Zealand held the Presidency van Bohemen hosted a breakfast at the $11 million apartment purchased by the Government last year for the UN Representative.

Part of the apartment’s appeal was that it is over the road from the UN building and thus easily accessible for the diplomatic heavyweights who sit on the Council.

What made van Bohemen’s breakfast different was that only the Ambassadors attended; not staff and no translators.

They were forced to talk to each other rather than declaim speeches.

The July event was judged such a success that breakfasts hosted by whoever is the Security Council President have continued and have become part of the “procedures” of the Security Council.

One small step for New Zealand.

But exchanging frank views over breakfast is one thing; trying to get small former colonial countries to to buck their aid donating former colonisers is another.


“It’s hard because they get picked off one by one by the big guys.

 “New Zealand is a small country from far way.

“We are not under the sort of pressures that former colonial dominated countries are.

“Some countries that are close to France can get influenced quite quickly.”

(The former French colony of Senegal is currently a member of the Council.)

And it becomes frustrating when positions are agreed beforehand, but when it comes to the vote in the Council, some members ignore those agreements.

Van Bohemen cites one such case where the African Union agreed on a position over the long-running dispute between Morocco, Algeria and local tribes over the Western Saara.

The African Union agreed on a settlement proposal but within the Security Council, two members of the African Union voted against the Union’s proposal.

“They followed the position of Morocco which is not a member of the African Union because they were under the influence of Morocco and also France.

“So you can see in these dynamics that there might well be a position, but when it comes to the crunch on a specific issue, it is not followed.”

That divisiveness simply reinforces the powers of the Permanent Five.


Perhaps the most brutal demonstration of the determination of the “P5”, as the veto carriers are known, came in 2006 when five small countries; Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore  and Switzerland proposed a relatively modest set of proposals to integrate the Security Council more closely with the General Assembly and to limit the use of the veto in situations involving genocide and war crimes.

But the P5 managed to persuade the UN Secretary General’s legal; advisors to prepare a legal opinion saying such a proposal would require two-thirds of the General Assembly’s members to support it.

The “Small Five” as the reformers became known had little alternative but to withdraw their proposal and shortly after disbanded.

However  from the ashes of the “Small Five” has emerged a group of 25 small and medium sized countries called the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency group (ACT) of which New Zealand is a member and which seeks much the same agenda as that of the Small Five but which, interestingly, also wants a more transparent process for the appointment of the UN Secretary-General.


There is already tension between the General Assembly and the Security Council over the secrecy of the process with the General Assembly President, Mogens Lykketoft, a Danish diplomat, asking why the Council did not just make the results of the process public.

“They act as if it’s secret,” said Mr. Lykketoft.

“We all know the figures from the media. ”

Mr Lykketoft took to Twitter to urge the Council to share the results

The 1 for 7 Billion campaign, a civil society coalition agitating for an open process for the last 18 months, echoed the call, pressing the Council to “a continued commitment to a transparent process.”

The secrecy imposed on the Council members is a farce as van Bohemen found when after the July straw poll he returned to the New Zealand mission to find his staff already knew the numbers.

But he has to be careful during the voting process because New Zealand is the only Security Council member with a candidate in the race.

To avoid any conflicts of interest, New Zealand has arranged for Russia to chair the September session of the Council’s straw poll.

New Zealand is rostered to be President that month and Russia is in line for the October Presidency.

By then New Zealand will be in last months on the Council; the term finishes in December.

It has been a long journey involving a huge international lobbying effort and now minds both within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in Parliament are turning to how New Zealand can continue some of the work that it has begun on the Council.

In a way, for a small country, being on the Security Council is a bit like hosting the Olympics.

For two years we have been at the centre of every international crisis, our opinion has mattered.

Our diplomats have learned a lot; a lot of new connections have been made.

The post-Security Council future will be the next big test for Murray McCully and his Ministry.

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(The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided travel assistance to New York for POLITIK)