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Who was Key really representing at the UN?

Who was Key really representing at the UN?

By Leslie Bravery
30 September 2013
Palestine Human Rights Campaign Aotearoa New Zealand

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key made the following reference to the Syrian conflict:

The Secretary-General has advised the Council and the General Assembly, "The United Nations Mission has now confirmed, unequivocally and objectively, that chemical weapons have been used in Syria." The report found "clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used" on 21 August. The information in the report also makes it very clear that those rockets must have been fired by the Syrian regime. As the Secretary-General has said, these are war crimes. Those responsible must be brought to account.

Note the use of quote marks in the printed draft of the speech which are, of course, not apparent in the speech as it was delivered live on the day. It is certain that what cannot be attributed to the Secretary General is John Key's assertion:

The information in the report also makes it very clear that those rockets must have been fired by the Syrian regime.

In his quest for a New Zealand seat at the UN Security Council, John Key claimed as a qualification that New Zealand has an independent foreign policy. New Zealand's support for the aggressive US position towards Syria is shared by Israel, the Gulf States and both Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-sponsored al-Qaeda terrorists in Syria. Key's accusation of Syrian government culpability in the deadly poison gas crime was made with absolutely no substantiating evidence and it was carefully sandwiched between quotes concerning the official findings that a war crime had been committed. The wild assertions are nothing but an embarrassment for New Zealand now that so much doubt has been cast on the likelihood of Syrian government responsibility for the gas attack.

But John Key didn't stop there – he went on to tell the UN delegates, “those that try to cast doubt on the report's conclusions make themselves look foolish and do a disservice to the UN”. As nobody is denying the facts of the crime, Key must have been hoping that his audience wouldn't have understood the difference between the principle of innocent until proved guilty and acceptance or otherwise of the fact that a crime had been committed. The Assembly will hardly have appreciated being addressed in such tones and no doubt delegates would have drawn their own conclusions regarding references to 'foolishness' and 'disservice'.

The Veto
John Key claims that reform of the council is desperately needed, particularly with regard to the use of the veto. Well our Prime Minister will probably need a great deal of support from other nations if he hopes to rid the United States of its addiction to use of the veto. From 10 September 1972 to 18 February 2011 the US cast a lone veto on 55 occasions, quite apart from those it used at other times in concert with its allies. Of those 55 lone US vetoes at the Security Council in which the US isolated itself from the rest of the world community, 39 were in aid of Israel even when the voting was on The question of the exercise by the Palestinian people of its inalienable rights The US also consistently vetoed resolutions Concerning Israel, Palestine and the Middle East situation, including the Palestinian question.

White phosphorus
But Key's concern with war crimes should prompt him to examine the role the US played at the Security Council over Israel's Operation Cast Lead attack on Gaza in 2008-2009. In that densely populated enclave where there is no possibility of escape for civilians, Israeli forces bombarded the territory with white phosphorus, which is banned under the Geneva Conventions, from being deployed in civilian areas. After previously issuing a categorical denial of using it, Israel was later forced to confess that it did use the weapon the day that The Times of London obtained photographs of stockpiles and two days after the paper had exposed the harmful effects of white phosphorus on the population of Gaza.

The substance burns everything it touches and causes severe burns when it comes into contact with the human body. Phosphorus burns are particularly horrific because the substance penetrates deep into body tissues while still burning and its effects are as bad as can be found in any chemical weapon. Even though burned tissue may be surgically removed, the phosphorus, absorbed into the blood stream, poisons internal organs. One of the phosphorus victims in Gaza, Ghadah Abu Halima, died of her injuries after she had given testimony to the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem. Five of Ghadah's relatives were also killed by the weapon.

Selective outrage
Israel's Operation Cast Lead death toll was similar in scale to the sarin gas attack in Damascus but the United States and its allies, including New Zealand, refused to censure Israel. Indeed, New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister, Murray McCully issued a statement in which he said that the NZ government would not choose sides in the conflict: "We've avoided getting into a fairly pointless argument about who and what is a proportionate versus disproportionate response". How different from John Key's assertive rhetoric concerning Syria! Key's speech will certainly have buried any sense among the international community that New Zealand has a truly independent foreign policy.

International law
The development of, and respect for, international law is fundamental to the purpose of the United Nations Organisation. The UN web page on Global Issues defines international law as “encompassing the legal responsibilities of States in their conduct with each other, and their treatment of individuals within State boundaries.” Of course, the domain of international law goes far beyond this simple definition as it encompasses, among other issues, human rights, disarmament, refugees, the treatment of prisoners, the use of force and the conduct of war. As the record clearly demonstrates, in practise, the satisfying of great power interests and egos often takes precedence over respect for international law. Three of the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council (the US, the UK and France) are members of the NATO military alliance and, sadly, international peace and security are the exclusive domain of the Security Council. As it is civilians who are the chief victims of war, it is clearly an abuse of human rights to deny the majority of humanity a voice in matters concerning their very survival and well-being.

To help bring him back to reality, John Key might care to watch this five minute video. The water shortages that plague West Bank villages are man-made – made by the occupying power that is – and in this example it is Al-Ma’asara, a village near Bethlehem, that has its water supply cut off for extended periods of time while nearby illegal Israeli occupation settlements take all the Palestinian water they want. But the New Zealand government fails to demand that Israel respect the Palestinian people's right to water. Likewise, urgent issues such as the defence of Palestinian children suffering under Israel's cruel breaches of article 76 of the Fourth Geneva convention, are left to people who do care, including those who wrote a letter published in Britain's Guardian newspaper calling on Israel to implement all recommendations made in the independent report Children in Military Custody

New Zealand's Prime Minister could have based his criticism of the United Nations upon the dangers to world peace and security posed by the disproportionate influence of great-power militarism on the Security Council but he preferred to associate his call for so-called reform with belligerent US propaganda. Sanity, however, is returning, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announcing that the international community aims to hold a Syria peace conference, 'Geneva II', in mid-November. Hopefully, the increasingly fragmented Syrian opposition groups will now also declare their readiness to take part in the international conference without preconditions, as has the Syrian government. But nothing should be taken for granted; those elements that wish to strike at Syria militarily will continue to seek opportunities to do so. John Key and a few other world leaders have shown that they are out of step with the needs and aspirations of the majority of humanity. Their perspective is that of the Security Council and they pay scant attention to the feelings expressed in the General Assembly. Global grass-roots peace movements and an abundance of human rights NGOs, both secular and religious, represent a coming together of humanity that puts many of our political leaders to shame. Violence breeds violence and bombing Syria would achieve nothing other than to create more misery and chaos, more resentment and yet more instability.


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