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Amnesty Speech - To Thy Own Self Be True

30 April 2005

Hon Matt Robson MP, Progressive Deputy Leader

To Thy Own Self Be True

Keynote Address to Amnesty International - New Zealand section
Annual meeting, 1.45pm, Sat 30 April
St Mary’s College Hall, Guildford Terrace, Wellington

Chair, Fellow Members of Amnesty International

Thank you for your invitation to address you.

The Rt Hon Winston Peters after discovering that Asians are taking over New Zealand has now uncovered another fiendish, startling and worrying matter – a key colleague of Saddam Hussein has come to New Zealand and applied for Refugee status.

The fact that Asians make up about 1.9% of the total population (and should it matter if they were 51.9% of a democratic, non-racist nation?) hasn’t deterred the Rt Hon gentleman from keeping god-fearing New Zealanders awake in their beds at night.

Nor has the fact that neither the New Zealand Immigration Service, the various Refugee organizations, the New Zealand police or security forces or Saddam Hussein himself any knowledge if a leading follower of Saddam Hussein applying for asylum in New Zealand. It may possibly be that said follower of Saddam Hussein, unlike Mr. Peters, is aware that those involved in war crimes cannot be afforded asylum status under the refugee Convention.

With such alarm bells being rung it is no wonder that my press statement on the landing of a hostile contingent from Mars was not picked up by one single media outlet! Life is unfair.

And yes life is unfair for millions of people the whole world over whose crime in the eyes of repressive regimes, and those non-repressive regimes that allow them to flourish,
is that they have dared to exercise the right guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to free speech. And with that free speech they try to argue and perhaps organize for the right that Winston Peters and my colleagues in Parliament take for granted. Those rights under international law are there even if others find them absurd and disagree. Even if the free speech is inaccurate. Even if the free speech is used to make outlandish claims.

In democratic societies they are there for the citizen and non-citizen. For the democrat and the fascist. For the politician who uses demagoguery and the one that speaks the truth.

And Amnesty International, thank God, has been there for over forty years to defend their right to freedom of the bigot as well as the humanitarian.

I pay tribute, sincerely, to the founders of this great organisation, one of the truly outstanding human rights organizations of this planet and to the representatives of the New Zealand chapter here today.

I want to use my speech to use to look critically at the role of New Zealand parliamentarians in the work of defending human rights.

New Zealand, by any standards, has one of the outstanding records in the recognition of full democratic rights for all its citizens.

That does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination that all human rights have been met.

There are many unresolved issues in regard to the tangata whenua.

Gender equity across society has not been achieved.

Our commitment to total human rights for our children is understandably under scrutiny.

Parliament has just granted the Minister of Internal Affairs the right to withdraw your passport if you are suspected, note not charged and convicted, of being a threat to national security.

Our laws governing security are suspect in relation to guarantees of natural justice. The Zaoui case has shone the spotlight on this part of our law and I will return to that issue.

And there are many other areas where we have a long way to go before we can stop and have a cup of tea.

But by world standards, and in relation to political freedoms and freedom from arbitrary arrest and torture, we are a free and democratic nation.

We can be proud of our Bill Of Rights.

We can be proud of the fact that almost all the international conventions and instruments guaranteeing human rights are part of our law.

However, I would argue, our democratic structures give us a greater responsibility to work for human rights in a world where so many are denied even the basic human rights.

And it gives us a greater responsibility to scrutinize ourselves to make sure that we are squeaky clean.

Parliament and the commitment to Human Rights

Amnesty International has integrity because no matter what the political sympathies of its 1.8 million members world-wide it will challenge governments that are suspected of violating human rights. It is truly:

“Independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion. It does not support or oppose any government or political system, nor does it support or oppose the views of the victims whose rights it seeks to protect. It is concerned solely with the impartial protection of human rights.”

I’m afraid that our political history does not show that politicians and Parliaments have upheld basic human rights at all times and at all places.

Our history since the founding of New Zealand shows war crimes at home and abroad, imprisonment without trial of Maori who opposed the practices of colonization, mistreatment of conscientious objectors and violation of fundamental human rights as a colonial power in the Pacific.

We have tended to keep quiet about the human rights violation of countries and blocs of countries with whom we have sided, particularly in the Cold War., and been strident about abuses or alleged abuses of nations on “the other side”.

Let me give two examples. Can anyone remember protests by New Zealand governments of the political prisoners of apartheid until the regime was beyond the pale for even it most fervent backers?

Can anyone identify the maker of this quote in May 1993:

“We have been watching the proceedings of the trial closely. It has to be recognized, however, that Gusmao is a self-confessed terrorist. Clearly some form of sentence has to be expected”.

That is right. The New Zealand Ministry of External Relations and Trade (the predecessor to today’s MFAT) in a memo of 21 May 1993.

Various foreign ministers of Labour and National regimes concurred with this view and stood by as 200,000 people died in East Timor over two decades under a regime of terror imposed by Indonesian. Victims of that terror were deterred from seeking refuge in the New Zealand embassy in Jakarta by the placement of barbed wire. Below the barbed wire their torturers were waiting

Those “skills” of terror and repression were honed in East Timor and are continued by the Indonesian military and security forces in Acheh and West Papua.

I have used but two examples of the double standard in regard to upholding human rights by New Zealand governments and Parliaments. There are many more, sadly.

But it is true, as the Amnesty New Zealand website explains that:

In New Zealand Amnesty International has had the active support of all the major political parties. The Parliamentary groups bring issues of concern to the attention of parliamentarians and to international parliamentary bodies such as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the International Parliamentary Union.

The pity is that some of us think we can pick and choose. I would argue that just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, support for human rights requires the adjective” universal”.

And that means New Zealand.

Let me now, in the last part of my address for which you will be thankful, turn to the case of Ahmed Zaoui in New Zealand.

I say New Zealand because as our highly respected, as least outside of some offices in the Beehive, Refugees Status Appeals authority in its 223 page decision found, the violations of the human rights of this political refugee and man of peace have occurred in a number of countries including that of his birth, Algeria.

In that country no-one who follows world affairs will be surprised to learn that this elected Member of Parliament was deposed from his seat along with all the other duly elected representatives by the military, subject to torture, convicted with a death sentence by a military court in absentia and forced with his family to flee for his life.

Our highly regarded RSAA in an exhaustive process where all the norms of natural justice and due process were followed found that not only was he denied his basic human rights in Algeria but that in democratic Belgium, France and Switzerland he was unjustly treated, wrongly held in prison and that his crime was basically his opposition, peaceful, to the military dictatorship of oil and gas rich Algeria which had the closest and most amicable relationship with Mr. Zaoui’s persecutors.

And the record in democratic New Zealand before and after the finding of the RSAA that Mr. Zaoui should be recognized as a Convention refugee?

It is indeed a sorry story and one that should make all the Parliamentary members of Amnesty who have done sterling work for political prisoners from Burma to Burkina Faso, blush, nay go deep red or blue ( depending on political colouration) with shame.

Ahmed Zaoui landed in Auckland on December 5 2002 and asked for asylum. 17 hours later, after a flight of many hours from Korea, he was questioned by a Customs officer in English – a language he did not speak.

The Customs Officer, coached by his superiors, found him to be a member of a terrorist organization who had used weapons.

The Police took over and he was held for many days in a police cell.

The SIS questioned him, for many hours without a lawyer and without competent interpreters. Their tapes were not later disclosed to defence counsel and went missing. Then some were found.

From these illegal steps the police produced a threat assessment based on Ahmed’s confession, an Algerian warrant and a right-wing American website which repeated the Algerian regime’s denunciation of Ahmed as a terrorist.

In the Manukau Court a bedraggled and handcuffed Ahmed Zaoui in prison clothes was remanded by a District Court Judge. The media including TV were present despite the fact that the Immigration Act forbids publication of details of asylum seekers. The Judge did not look behind the papers. He did not concern himself as to whether this asylum seeker had been dealt with justly. He did not concern himself with issues as to whether it was lawful to imprison an asylum seeker. The New Zealand Immigration Service, the Police, the SIS and the mention of terrorism were enough to keep this man behind bars. This was New Zealand in December 2002.

Ahmed Zaoui was taken from the Papakura Police Station under police helicopter escort. His photo in the New Zealand Herald and his camera image on TV, in violation of the law, had worked on the stereotype of a bearded Arab terrorist.

Corrections officials, well-briefed by the Police and the SIS with their version of whom they were receiving, had already decided that this “terrorist” would go into the maximum security wing under 23 hour-a day lockdown. They were not following their procedure. Maximum is a regime for the worst type of behavioural cases. Corrections had a mild-mannered Islamic scholar on their hands. He was to stay there for 10 months. In 23 hour confinement. With no contact with any other inmates. With the SIS and Police vetting all visitors – even when the RSAA had determined that he was a Convention refugee.

As Minister of Corrections I had had to look at many cases of confinement in maximum security. As soon as behaviour became more acceptable inmates were moved out. Otherwise we would be in breach of our own standards and those of the Convention on Torture, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment. Ahmed Zaoui never at any stage exhibited exhibited unacceptable behaviour.

The then Minister of Corrections refused to intervene. The same went for the Ministers of Police, Immigration and Refugee Affairs, Customs, SIS, Foreign Affairs and the Attorney –General when approached many times about the parts that impinged on their responsibilities as portfolio ministers, cabinet ministers, and members of Amnesty International and upholders of constitutional rights. It was either somebody else’s responsibility, no reply or there were things they knew but could not tell because of security

He was held as a maximum security inmate for 10 months because Corrections officials at the highest level were not following lawful procedures but what they understood to be the wishes of politicians and the Police and the SIS.. The request for the Ombudsman, the Police Complaints Authority and the various responsible ministers to investigate all of these official actions in regard to Mr. Zaoui have been with them for over a year and a half.

Finally, after enormous pressure and the damning report of a psychiatrist of the effect of maximum security on the health of Ahmed Zaoui he was transferred to minimum security in Mt Eden Prison in September 2003 where he was to stay until his Supreme Court ordered release on bail in December 2004 – 2 years in prison without charge or trial.

Ahmed Zaoui’s lawyers have had to fight tooth and nail for him to have the normal legal rights guaranteed by the Bill Of Rights. This has included having the High Court determine that of course he was entitled to know what he was alleged to have done so that he could answer the allegations. It has meant having removed his judge the Inspector –general who was clearly to be his executioner because he didn’t approve of refugees being in New Zealand. And when this same Inspector-General gave a TV interview which the SIS and the Prime Minister’s office did not like they both felt it appropriate to contact him and advise how he should respond to media questions.

The Attorney-General also held a dim view of habeas corpus and the right to bail. It took a mammoth legal battle to get the Supreme Court to assert that an accusation by the state of “terrorism” was not sufficient to oust their right to consider bail or a habeas corpus application. The state fought this to the end.

As part of this whole saga Ministers have felt that it was perfectly alright to attack the integrity of the RSAA and the Supreme Court. It was felt to be perfectly okay to have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs badger the French and Belgian authorities for statements condemning the RSAA decision.

Ahmed Zaoui dominated Question Time. Many of the questions were aimed at establishing that he was a terrorist (despite never being found to be such in any fair process) and wasting the taxpayer’s money. The majority of the seven parties in Parliament seemed to concur with this view.

My present benchmate the Hon David Benson-Pope, the Associate Minister of Education and the mover of the Civil Union Bill to provide greater human rights called out loudly in concurrence with a ministerial question from the right–wing ACT Party that Ahmed Zaoui should be put on a plane out of here – echoing the sentiments of the deposed Inspector–General of Security, Judge Laurie Grieg.

This whole episode is not one that throws credit on our parliamentary commitment to provide natural justice to an asylum seeker.

The perceived interests of the state overrode a legal and constitutional commitment for justice to be afforded, willingly, to Ahmed Zaoui.

Yes indeed we need a thorough and honest appraisal of all legislation dealing with security and terrorism. We need to make sure that in the paraphrased words of Justice Glazebrook that security concerns do not become a blanket thrown over human rights.

A recent article by the British Daily Telegraph reveals that pro-nuclear weapons Tony Blair was a young MP that “he was a member of CND” and “that it was a perfectly respectable career move for an aspiring Labor MP. When a youthful flirtation with CND no longer suited Blair’s self-image as a reformist social democrat…the biographical detail wasn’t just airbrushed out of the CV, but vehemently and bitterly denied.”

My challenge to all MP’s is simply this:

Our commitment to human rights, to be sincere, cannot be because it is “respectable career move” which we “airbrush out “when it becomes inconvenient.

Our commitment to human rights must extend to all without fear or favour in New Zealand and abroad. To do less would mean that we were not true to ourselves.

ENDS

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