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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

New Zealand Foreign Ministry briefing misinforms

New Zealand claims to have a balanced and evenhanded approach to the Israel Palestinian conflict. However, New Zealand’s voting record at the UN does not support this view and we are increasingly out of step with traditional allies.

In order to understand the thinking of the officials who brief New Zealand’s foreign minister, IINZ undertook a Official Information Act Request.

The results showed not only significant gaps in the advice Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) officials give to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, but also the omission of some vital pieces of information.

The November 2021 MFAT ministerial briefing on “New Zealand’s approach to votes on Middle East-related issues” was authored by the Unit Managers for the United Nations, Human Rights and Commonwealth Division (there is no divisional manager at this time) and Middle East and Africa Division, (headed by Daniel Mellsop).

In previous years, MFAT have advised Ministers to vote for most of the disproportionate number of resolutions that target Israel. These recommendations used to come with paragraphs of explanation and context. The briefing to Minister Mahuta, however, simply gives the voting position of 2020 and recommends the same for 2021. It is curious as to why there is no explanation of the resolutions, which one would expect to be a minimum requirement, particularly given this is a new foreign minister.

MFAT officials have previously failed to brief Ministers on grave concerns to do with foreign aid, so perhaps it is not a surprise that they have omitted important information from this briefing. One point in the briefing refers to the initiation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation. MFAT officials write that “The investigation’s announcement was criticised by Israel and the US, and praised by Palestine and civil society.”

Leaving aside the point that New Zealand does not recognise Palestine as a country (because it is not), and debate around exactly what “civil society” might mean, there are glaring omissions. A year before the initiation, Germany, Austria, Czechia, and Hungary, as well as Uganda, and Brazil all raised concerns about the jurisdiction of the ICC in this matter.
Furthermore, Australia submitted a report to the ICC in March 2020 clearly stating:

  • “Australia’s position is that the jurisdictional preconditions under Article 12 of the Rome Statute are not met”;
  • “Australia’s position is that a two-state solution must be advanced through direct negotiations between the parties”;
  • “The question of Palestinian statehood cannot be resolved prior to a negotiated peace settlement and therefore Australia’s position is clear: Australia does not recognise the ‘State of Palestine'”: and
  • “As outlined, the questions before the Court in the Prosecutor’s Request to confirm the Court’s territorial jurisdiction relate to the ‘State of Palestine’ and its territory. It is not appropriate for the Court to resolve these questions”

In February 2021, Australia clearly stated that “The International Criminal Court should not exercise jurisdiction in this matter” and “matters relating to territory and borders can only be resolved through direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”

This is critical information of which the Minister should be made aware. However, none of this data was provided to the Minister by MFAT in the briefing. We asked MFAT why they withheld such important information but they have not responded at the time of publication.

A hint to the reasons may lie in another of the briefing points, in which MFAT officials write “Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Yamina party and former ally of Netanyahu’s [sic], became Prime Minister…”. Most reasonable people would not classify Yamina as a “far-right” party. Even Wikipedia refers to Yamina as “an Israeli political alliance of right-wing parties”. Yamina accepted (and was accepted by) a coalition government with socialists and an Islamist party – that should be evidence enough that they are not as extreme as MFAT would like to paint them.

There is some room for hope, though. The MFAT officials do acknowledge that there is anti-Israel bias in the UNGA resolutions. They write that they recommend abstaining on (not opposing) “only four” of the resolutions because they fail “to take account of the need to engage with Israel in a constructive way…”

The briefing also suggests that New Zealand should support “Israel’s right to exist in peace and security” and that “direct negotiations between the parties will eventually be the only way to achieve a sustainable agreement…”

While we can be grateful for these concessions we would expect the Minister to have received a far more in-depth and comprehensive briefing of what is a complex situation.

 

UPDATE (26 Feb 2022)

MFAT have responded to questions about why there was no information about various countries strong opposition to the ICC probe, saying

The submission is intended to contain a summary of information relevant to Aotearoa New Zealand’s approach to votes on Middle East-related issues in the United Nations General Assembly.

 

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