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A Wider View Of Disarmament And Arms Control

In response to Tuesday's Scoop column by David Miller [David Miller: The Bombing of Iraq] on the bombing of Baghdad, Matt Robson, Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control, argues the portfolio is integral to a security policy for a independent and sovereign New Zealand.

A Wider View Of Disarmament And Arms Control

Transcript of a speech by the Hon. Matt Robson in the general debate in Parliament on 14 February 2001

In this debate, I want to set out how disarmament and arms control, for which I am the responsible Minister, fit into this Government's vision of an independent and sovereign New Zealand, a place in foreign policy that we have not occupied for a very long time.

Non-proliferation of nuclear weapons

What does the Government mean when it speaks about disarmament and arms control? Traditionally, it has been a high-level diplomatic activity.

There was the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York last year. At that conference, the nuclear-weapon states made an unequivocal commitment to eliminating their nuclear weapons. They signed on a set of new steps that will be monitored and measured in the next five-year review period.

That was a considerable diplomatic achievement. But in a decade that saw the unambiguous emergence of India and Pakistan as nuclear-weapon possessing nations, it was a long way from the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

New Zealand played an important part in the progress that was made, and we did it in a way that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. We did it in the "New Agenda" group, consisting of Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, South Africa and Sweden. Very good company.

Backbench politicians in the last Parliament helped to bring about that change, notably back-bench politicians from the Alliance and Labour.

I hardly need to remind Members that traditionally, New Zealand officials’ idea of "good company" was Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States. That was the old Cold War mindset.

But in 1997, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee of Parliament, on which five political parties were represented, conducted an inquiry into New Zealand’s Place in the World. Public submissions made it abundantly clear that it was time for a change, and the select committee’s recommendations, towards the end of 1997, supported a new approach.

Our foreign affairs officials recognised, too, that a new approach to international diplomacy on the part of New Zealand might be useful. But the question was whether the Government would agree to our diplomats embarking on a large-scale exercise mobilising world opinion, without any of our traditional friends being in the group of activists.

New Agenda

I actually give full credit to Don McKinnon. In his capacity as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, he supported the idea of New Zealand joining the "New Agenda". In doing so, he knew that he could rely on a cross-party consensus in Parliament to support the new approach.

This new approach does not mean the abandonment of old friends. Our relationships with Australia, Britain and the United States are still the most substantial and wide-ranging that we have, for a whole variety of historical, economic and cultural reasons. But our involvement with the New Agenda grouping does indicate an appreciation that New Zealand’s comprehensive security involves more than military alliances.

I will not exaggerate our influence. The issues are extremely complex, and there is resistance to change amongst the great powers. We want the momentum of the New Agenda to continue, but it is unrealistic to expect that New Zealand, on its own, can speed up the pace.

For all that, our role is an active one. I can recall that in the mid-1980s, when New Zealand decided that we did not want nuclear ships to visit our ports, the government of the day faint-heartedly pleaded that this policy was "not for export". Well, our disarmament and arms control policy is for export now. We have acquired more confidence as a nation since then.

We are actively promoting the idea of a Southern Hemisphere free of nuclear weapons, drawing on the membership of the four treaty-based zones covering Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, South-east Asia, and Africa. This is on-going diplomatic work.

Proliferation of small arms

Beyond that, in March, we are hosting, with the cooperation of the United Nations Asia/Pacific Centre for Disarmament, a special conference on disarmament, in Wellington, at Te Papa. A main thrust will be the proliferation of small arms in the South Pacific. A careful look at the situation in the Solomons shows why this issue is so important to New Zealand.

And the South Pacific means New Zealand as well. Small arms in the wrong hands mean more violent crime, both here and overseas.

Arms control can be tackled from the supply side, but New Zealand has not got much leverage there. We are not manufacturers of the guns, grenade launchers, mortars and other infantry-style weapons that circulate outside lawful state control.

What we can and should do is address the demand side, particularly in our own region. We can do this on the broad cross-party consensus on New Zealand’s role in the world that emerged in the last Parliament.

Disarmament and arms control are part of a comprehensive national, regional and ultimately global security policy. Disarmament and arms control, in our region, are linked to concepts such as good governance, sustainable development, democratic evolution, and the military balance.

I readily concede that there are good reasons why people are driven to take up arms in some circumstances. I have worked, since 1975, with people who have suffered greatly during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Many of those people, including the leader of the Timorese resistance and liberation movement, Xanana Gusmao, are now friends of New Zealand. I know what they had to endure, how they struggled, and how difficult their path has been. They are grateful for the support of the New Zealand people.

I highly esteem the role of the New Zealand Defence Force in working to re-establish a climate of security in East Timor. That is something we can take pride in, as a good neighbour in the Pacific region.

But the long-term solution is not a sustained presence of New Zealand or other foreign countries' troops in East Timor. The solution is a programme of aid that will restore the infrastructure in that country, and eliminate poverty.

I would go further. We need to support measures that militate against the emergence of gross inequalities, and not only in East Timor, but also elsewhere amongst peoples in our region.

Human rights

In my capacity as Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, I have had to examine what New Zealand is doing to promote a non-violent approach towards the settlement of disputes.

Attention to human rights addresses one of the most pervasive of all the root causes of disputes. In spite of that, one well-known commentator on strategic affairs warned, last year, against scrutinising Indonesia’s range of problems "solely through the monocle of human rights". He gave similar advice to previous New Zealand governments. As one retired military officer recently wrote to me, the idea was "maintaining a credible relationship with current and potential allies".

The New Zealand Government, for almost all the time that the people of East Timor were struggling for independence, accepted that advice. To its shame and our shame.

Other New Zealanders saw the situation differently. Phil Goff and I are both long on the record as having shared the same viewpoint on East Timor. Now, perceptions of the sort that led us to our common position on that issue have become important drivers of foreign policy.

As it happens, that "monocle" turn of phrase, besides being quite amusing, is also useful. The previous government looked at regional security through "a monocle of stability".

Suharto gave Indonesia stability, but where are his former admirers now?

Stability for the rich or security for the poor?

Of course stability and security are not mutually exclusive, but they are not the same thing. This is particularly true for the poorer inhabitants of resource-rich countries that depend on foreign intervention to exploit those resources.

Stability and human rights in some countries are poles apart. The select committee inquiry into Defence Beyond 2000 recognised this, noting that New Zealand’s support for stability in the region should not be at the expense of the political evolution necessary to achieve more democratic forms of government.

Stability in many countries is imposed from above, using the armed forces as instruments of coercion. It is for this reason that the present Government continues to look closely at the role the Indonesian Army.

We are not alone. Last year, the United States suspended military cooperation with Indonesia. Certain arms-exporting European Community nations have not, and I am profoundly sceptical about the sort of cynical brush-off response I have heard from them, to the effect that "It doesn’t amount to much – the Indonesians haven’t got much money to spend on armaments". Tell that to the people of Aceh or Molucca.

The cry for human rights comes not from the State, but from the people, and by and large, from the under-privileged. It is not at all surprising to me that centre-left and centre-right governments in New Zealand have different perceptions on these matters.

Neither is it surprising that the West Papuan leader John Ondawame, who was a guest at the Alliance Conference in October last year, was not a guest at a National Party conference.

Role of the Defence Force

I will conclude with some observations on my approach, as Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, to the role of the New Zealand Defence Force.

When select committee members in the last Parliament looked at what the Defence Force was doing during the 1990s to contribute to New Zealand's security, they saw that the operational emphasis was on peace support and humanitarian activities.

Peace support is no soft option for armed forces. Countries with divided civil populations place demands on soldiers that are well beyond the demands of the conventional battlefield.

New Zealand has a well-earned reputation for its versatile, combat-trained, and culturally aware forces on peacekeeping and humanitarian relief missions. But our contribution is always limited by the size of our population and our resource base. New Zealand should give priority to doing what we can do best.

This puts small, but largely self-sufficient, quickly deployable Army elements, fully equipped and highly trained, at the top of the list of priorities. This is not because the Government favours the use of military force to resolve disputes, but because of the unpredictability and risks associated with peacekeeping. It can be dangerous.

We also need to be able to deploy troops quickly and safely. There are drawbacks in having forces equipped, trained and ready to move, but having to rely on others to move them. Timeliness is important in military affairs. It always was. Our capital city might not have been called Wellington if the Prussians had failed to get to Waterloo in time.

This means that equipment procurement priorities have had to be adjusted. The last government's proposals to acquire military equipment of less relevance to New Zealand's strategic situation have been cancelled.

The Government is reshaping the defence force in line with the new defence policy framework. As the Prime Minister noted in her statement yesterday, substantial investments are being made in essential equipment, beginning with the modernisation of the army. We are working on a ten-year plan for investment in safe, effective, and sustainable capabilities. As Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control, I endorse that approach.

There is a fiscal issue here. Every politician has to ask the question to those who want the Government to spend more on beefing up New Zealand's military capabilities: Where is the money to come from? It's our call, because we in Parliament take the responsibility – and the blame – for determining the level of taxation year by year. The Alliance certainly does not want to see taxes wastefully spent.

There is also the arms control issue. We do not want an arms race in the Pacific. We all know the view of those who do well out of arms deals. There are a lot of beneficiaries in that area, but they are not the people whom I represent in Parliament, the people who voted for a change, and the people to whom I am committed to deliver that change.

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