New Zealand nearly sanctions the United Nations

Apr 10, 2024
New Zealand and Israel flags. Image: iStock/ Oleksii Liskonih

The Bank of New Zealand blocks a donation to UNRWA, then thinks again.

Like many people I have been horrified by Israel’s genocidal war against the Palestinians. I have made modest donations to UNICEF, partly to help but also, I must admit, to appease my conscience. I was particularly inflamed by the Israeli government’s attempt to close down the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).This is the major agency providing relief for the Palestinians, and so a natural target for the Israeli government.

I attempted to make a donation. This would both help the Palestinians but also be a protest against Israeli repression. The easiest way seemed to be to make a direct transfer from my account with the Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) to an UNRWA bank account, of which there are eight. The most suitable seemed to be Bank Austria in Vienna. I filled in the required details, pressed the button, and the money flew from my account.

But it didn’t end up at its destination.

A day or so later, I got this message from the BNZ:

Payment held SSA – CPIT27136644

Good afternoon,

There is a payment of EUR100 currently held by BNZ Sanctions/Compliance department.

We understand and sympathise with the current situation in Palestine, however for our compliance and your security, as this is a new payee based in or near a conflict area we have some further questions which we require to be provided before we can release this payment.

1. Detailed purpose of payment and copy of invoice (if applicable)
2. Please advise of any underlying parties or beneficiary of funds. Please include full name, physical address and website of the underlying party/beneficiary of funds
3. Please advise if the payment (including all parties involved) has any direct or indirect relation to ‘the government of Gaza’
4. Please advise if the payment has any direct or indirect relation to Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Crimea, Donetsk or Luhansk regions. If yes, please explain

The ‘usual suspects’ and none with relevance to New Zealand. And as for Cuba, the UN General Assembly has repeatedly called for sanctions to be lifted; last year 187 countries (including NZ and Australia) voted in favour with only two opposing – United States and Israel.

Then followed some computer gobbledygook and ended with:

For more on why we are asking for this information, please refer to our bnz website here.

Kind Regards
[Name redacted]
Operations Associate – Sanctions Screening
Operational Excellence

Quite a list of unanswerable or meaningless questions, but the key phrase was the reference in Q3 to ‘the government of Gaza.’ That is, the victim of genocidal oppression, not the perpetrator. But then banks and morality make uncomfortable bedfellows. No objection to sending money to Israel – don’t suppose my €100 would buy many bullets, but probably enough to kill a family of five.

The links to the web pages on sanctions are informative, and damning. We are told that:

We follow sanctions laws from New Zealand as well as those from relevant overseas sanctions authorities.

One might ask, what overseas sanctions authorities should the BNZ follow except the United Nations Security Council (UNSC)? That’s what the pundits on international law tell us. But no. Firstly, the Bank of New Zealand, despite its name, is owned by the National Australia Bank (NAB). The list of sanctions authorities obeyed by BNZ, who’s in, who’s out (no sign of China or India), and its order, is instructive:

  • New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  • Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
  • U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control
  • U.K. Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation
  • Monetary Authority of Singapore
  • European Union
  • United Nations Security Council.

DFAT is there, at number 2, but it is the next one – US Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) -which is in fact the kingpin. It runs not merely the US sanctions regime but that of ‘The West’ in general, and with unbridled enthusiasm. It is a financial Weapon of Mass Destruction, inflicting pain, immiseration and often death around the world. Sanctions, after all, are essentially a weapon of war, so destruction is to be expected. And at the bottom of the list of authorities is the UNSC

The BNZ, of course, puts a rather different gloss on things:

Sanctions are restrictions on trade and financial transactions. They aim to cut off resources to stop aggressive and harmful activity, for example, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, military conflicts, or human rights abuse.

No mention of genocide there. That’s a relief. Similarly nuclear proliferation rather than nuclear weapons as such; that’s good news for the Pentagon’s plans to modernise its huge nuclear arsenal. Military conflict? Surely not the US?

I’ve written a bit on sanctions, and I am familiar with the New Zealand government’s blocking of aid to the Red Cross in North Korea, but this case was somewhat different. BNZ, obeying ‘sanctions authorities’, was imposing sanctions on an agency of the United Nations itself.

I sent a polite reply to BNZ:

Good afternoon XXXXX

Thanks for your email.

I’m rather bemused. Since this is a donation to an agency of the United Nations – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – I presume you are not suggesting that it contravenes UN sanctions.

So this is a matter of New Zealand Government sanctions?

If so, is there a specific regulation I should be aware of?


Easter intervened (is there a message there?) and then came a reply from BNZ:

Thank you for the below information.

We have now released the payment.

Why the change of heart, I don’t know.

Perhaps the amount of money was so small that the administrative hassle wasn’t worth it? Perhaps someone in authority realised that taking action against a UN relief organisation, especially in the current circumstances, could lead to damaging publicity? Perhaps the good people at BNZ were embarrassed at blocking aid to the victims in Gaza?

And I have no reason to suppose that these weren’t good people. And that leads to thoughts of the Eichmann case and Hannah Arendt’s phrase ‘the banality of evil.’ Good people – or at least ordinary people who are not consciously sadistic or unfeeling – doing evil things. People in bureaucracies not concerning themselves with the consequences of their actions. People thinking, with little scrutiny, they are doing good but in fact causing harm.

Sanctions are, in general, weapons employed by the strong against the weak, an instrument to coerce them into yielding sovereignty and resources, and to sacrifice their interests to the benefit of the aggressor. Israel, backed by the US, against the Palestinians with sanctions as one weapon in the armoury. It is Israel that should be sanctioned, but instead it is provided with weapons with which to kill tens of thousands of women, men and children in Gaza. And the BNZ instinctively started to sanction the victims.

The Banality of Evil meets the Theatre of the Absurd.

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