19 Sep 2016

Drama ahead of PM's United Nations visit

5:38 am on 19 September 2016

There has been high drama ahead of the Prime Minister arriving in New York for the United Nations Leaders' Week, with his flight diverted for a medical emergency, an explosion in downtown New York and an emergency Security Council meeting on Syria.

John Key at a stand up with media. 8 July 2016.

John Key said the Security Council meeting on Syria would be one of New Zealand's "biggest moments". Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

John Key's Air New Zealand flight to Houston was diverted to Tahiti after the pilot declared an emergency medical situation for another passenger.

Within hours of Mr Key landing in America, news broke of dozens of people being injured in an explosion in a Manhattan apartment, just blocks away from the United Nations. The explosion is likely to result in security at the United Nations being tightened even further as world leaders descend on New York.

Emergency UN Security Council meeting

On Sunday (NZ time) Russia called an emergency meeting of the Security Council, with New Zealand's UN Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen in the chair, after the United States admitted carrying out air strikes believed to have killed Syrian government soldiers.

British-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 80 government soldiers died in the attack.

The attack had paved the way for Islamic State fighters to overrun the position near Deir al-Zor airport, the group said.

Other reports say at least 62 Syrian troops fighting Islamic State were killed.

The US military said it believed it was bombing Islamic State jihadists, but stopped as soon as Russian officials said it was hitting the Syrian military.

This was in the middle of a seven day ceasefire agreed between the US and Russia, that took effect from last Tuesday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands on a truce deal for Syria.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shake hands on a truce deal for Syria. Photo: AFP

Speaking from New York, New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, said it was hoped the Security Council would endorse the terms of the deal during a special meeting on Syria this week, and in fact had not yet been briefed on the details of the agreement before the weekend's emergency meeting.

He said, according to reports he had received, there were "bitter exchanges" at that meeting, between Russia and the US in particular, although there were many other countries with strong views on the conflict.

Meeting on Syria one of NZ's "biggest moments"

Before leaving for New York, Mr Key said the Security Council meeting on Syria would be one of New Zealand's "biggest moments".

"If we can get this to hold longer, I think you can start working on what the long-term outlook looks like."

He said from a diplomatic point of view, New Zealand's position was that President Bashar al-Assad was not part of Syria's long term future.

"We want to see transition there, but it's got to happen in an orderly way and we understand and respect that."

And it will be a major week for New Zealand on the world stage, said Mr Key.

"This is a time when New Zealand can use the presidency, which only happens twice in the time you're actually on the council and we're only on the council every 20 or 30 years, so it's the one time to use that presidency to direct the world's leaders, if you like, on the most pressing issue we face."

Foreign Minister Murray McCully

Foreign Minister Murray McCully Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Mr McCully said the events of the weekend just underlined the need for the Security Council to face up to major conflicts and find a long term solution.

"The fact that there have been some events that threaten the implementation of that process, is significantly worse news [but] it doesn't change the fact that talking about Syria was the right thing to do, doesn't change the fact that there is still an overriding need for the council to do its job and try and find a way of stopping the conflict, delivering humanitarian support, and getting a political track towards a solution underway."

He said there were certain deadlines that were putting pressure on the international community.

"Now the events of the last 24 hours have derailed things a little bit, sadly, but I think everyone understands that if the Kerry/Lavrov deal that's been done doesn't gain momentum and get into effect now, given the proximity to the US Presidential elections, it could be many months and many more tragic deaths if we can't keep this deal on the rails so we've got to invest heavily in achieving that."

And he said that was why New Zealand, as council president, had chosen to put the focus squarely on Syria this week.

"Because we had, if you like, created a horizon, for that discussion and the parties that had been involved in these talks, in particular Russia and the US had been keen to make the most of this opportunity that will arise on Wednesday.

Mr McCully acknowledged it was always going to be a major challenge to get a period of reduced conflict.

"Sadly we've seen that get a bit more difficult than everyone had hoped but the bottom line remains the same - we've got to try to create conditions that enable the deal to be implemented and the Security Council needs to try to get itself into the space this week where it can give momentum to that deal so it does get implemented.

"Otherwise the consequences are just terrible."

Jeffrey Feltman said there was no bigger crisis, in terms of peace and security on the international scene, than the Syrian crisis.

Jeffrey Feltman said there was no bigger crisis, in terms of peace and security on the international scene, than the Syrian crisis. Photo: AFP

Jeffrey Feltman, UN Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, said there was no obvious solution to the Syrian conflict, and welcomed the focus that will be brought to it this week.

"There is no bigger crisis, in terms of peace and security on the international scene than the Syrian crisis, and the repercussions are global, when you look at the migration in Europe, you look at the potential return of foreign terrorist fighters from the Syria battlefield.

"This is a truly global peace and security issue."

Mr Feltman said the UN was taking a three-pronged approach to the Syrian crisis; trying to reduce the violence, increase the humanitarian access and trying to get to a viable political process that can lead to a political transition in Syria.

He said having Mr Key chairing the meeting was going to remind people of how important it was to reach a solution, and create some momentum.

"The meeting itself won't, by itself, create that solution, but it's part of creating the environment and the atmosphere to unite the region and the international community to get this resolved."

Labour's foreign affairs spokesperson David Shearer said it was the right call for New Zealand to highlight the Syrian crisis.

"It's going to be really difficult to be able to crack it but it's worth a try and I think if you didn't do it, it would be pretty negligent given that everybody who's anybody is going to be in town in that particular month."

Earlier this year, the New Zealand government increased its refugee quota from 750 to 1000, to take effect from 2018.

The government said that showed New Zealand was doing its part, but it did not want to take in more people than could be properly accommodated.

Mr Shearer said that did not put New Zealand in a strong moral position.

"New Zealand, in many ways, is under pressure I think to get its own house in order before it starts preaching to others, it was a very modest, I would say mean increase in the number of refugees allowed to come to New Zealand.

"I would have liked to have seen a doubling of the quota - it puts us in a greater moral position to be able to take that issue up."

Mr Feltman said the response to the refugees crisis was a collective responsibility.

"Countries like Lebanon and Turkey and Jordan have really shouldered an over-size burden - you look at Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, not that much smaller, in terms of population than New Zealand and they have 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

"That's simply untenable to expect to shoulder that alone."

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