Global uncertainty and domestic troubles as Ardern heads to UN

Jacinda Ardern heads to the United Nations with hope of meaningful action on the Christchurch Call and climate change. But domestic troubles and global instability will prove challenging in their own ways, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

For the second year running, Jacinda Ardern may be hoping for a sprinkling of stardust at the United Nations General Assembly after a month to forget at home.

In 2018, ministerial mishaps and the Labour summer camp scandal were for the most part outshone by her debut appearance at the international summit in New York.

Shaking off domestic troubles will be harder this year, with investigations into the Labour Party’s handling of sexual assault allegations set to roll on for months - and with Ardern’s proclamation to the UN last year that “Me Too must become We Too” gleefully weaponised by the National Party.

Perhaps in part because of that, Ardern’s second UN visit will be in some ways a more restrained affair.

There will be no repeat of her interview with late-night host Stephen Colbert, nor any late-night appearances, with her media team perhaps wary of National leader Simon Bridges’ “part-time Prime Minister” jibe hitting home.

A follow-up to her UN General Assembly speech, in which she called for countries to “rebuild and recommit” to multilateralism, is also in peril.

A shorter trip than last year and the byzantine method for determining the speaking order mean Ardern may have left the US by the time New Zealand’s slot comes up - in which case Craig Hawke, the country’s permanent representative to the UN, will step up in her stead.

Christchurch Call, climate top of agenda

But the Prime Minister is still packing in plenty during her time in New York.

She is delivering the keynote address at UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ Climate Action Summit, and another speech at the summit luncheon.

Climate action is Guterres’ top priority for this year’s gathering of world leaders.  In an interview with CBS, he expressed hope about governments responding to public pressure but warned: “Nature is angry, and you cannot play tricks with nature. Nature strikes back.”

Despite that urgency, some of New Zealand’s closest partners are not entirely on board: neither US President Donald Trump nor Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison are expected to attend the summit.

That lack of support from major players, coupled with Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate deal, has led many to question whether meaningful progress can be made - but Ardern is more optimistic.

“Yes, central government taking a leadership role for a small nation and economy like New Zealand is incredibly important...but even if you had a scenario where that wasn’t the case, that doesn’t mean your country has to stand still.

“If you have awareness and ownership amongst the private sector, amongst consumers and citizens, you can make inroads as well.”

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has tapped Jacinda Ardern to deliver a keynote address at his UN Climate Action Summit. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The other major component of Ardern’s time at the UN will be a New Zealand-hosted update on the Christchurch Call, the pledge from countries and major technology companies to crack down on the online spread of extremist content in the wake of the devastating March 15 terror attack.

Facebook’s announcement on the eve of UNGA that it was changing a number of policies to better combat extremism has provided Ardern with some useful ballast to scepticism about the voluntary agreement, including Bridges’ suggestion it was a “nebulous, feel-good thing” (a more detailed account of the origins of the Christchurch Call and the path forward will be published on Newsroom later this week).

Then there is her first formal bilateral meeting with Trump - an encounter about which Ardern does not seem overly enthused, but may regard as a necessary evil given talk of progress on a free trade agreement.

But looming over New Zealand’s best-laid plans is the sense that the “state of disorder and uncertainty” plaguing the world order, as Ardern put it before last year’s UNGA, has not diminished and may even have increased.

Iran’s suspected involvement in an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields has heightened tensions in the region, India and Pakistan have been going toe to toe over Kashmir, while the World Trade Organisation’s appellate body is weeks from collapse unless the US lifts a veto on the appointment of new judges.

Then there is the sense that American influence at the UN and on the world stage is steadily receding. China is ready to take up a more prominent leadership role, but some are uneasy about the implications of an authoritarian nation setting international rules.

“I don’t believe...that we’ve necessarily made process in firming up those institutions in a real sense, but I do hear the defence of them growing louder and louder.

Ardern concedes there has been little movement on stabilising the international order, but says there is still a coalition of the willing for multilateralism to win out.

“I don’t believe...that we’ve necessarily made process in firming up those institutions in a real sense, but I do hear the defence of them growing louder and louder.

“When you look around the world at what is a well-heralded [economic] slowdown, you see the impact, I think, of us moving away from that world order that we’ve been operating within.”

Words rather than actions seems an apt way to describe talk of reforming the UN.

While Ardern discussed the topic with Guterres last year, given New Zealand’s long-standing opposition to the veto powers wielded by the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, she is not expecting to make much headway this time around.

“Of course that’s on the UN Secretary General’s list, he’s focused on reform, gender issues and the climate - this meeting is particularly focused on climate action...

“It’s probably fair to say it has not dissipated from the Secretary General’s agenda, but some of that reform work, a lot of it’s quite internal.”

New Zealand is currently unable to impose sanctions outside of the UN regime, leaving it at the mercy of the P5 on some issues, but an Autonomous Sanctions Bill introduced by the last government is still languishing in purgatory - a state of affairs which seems likely to continue.

“We just haven’t seen it as a priority...that’s not to say we don’t have other tools available to us that are our own, rather than through the UN,” Ardern says.

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