Our foreign policy lacks any commitment to human rights. A bold conclusion maybe, but the most realistic one to be drawn from a couple of recent events where New Zealand appears to have been caught on the hop.
First was the appallingly tardy response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Even though the mounting tragedy had been filling our television screens for some days, our government appeared to miss its significance and any sense of obligation on New Zealand’s part to assist. Indeed, it seemed to be only the strong public reaction that finally jolted it to take any action at all.
Now, this week there been the saga of the New Zealanders being held in Australian detention camps prior to deportation here. Our response has been to send a text to the Australians about what is going on. I am not standing up for Australian criminals who happen to have been born in New Zealand, but the treatment being meted out to them is excessive and out of line with the vaunted special relationship between our two countries.
However, these two incidents are not isolated cases. They are symptomatic of a general malaise when it comes to standing up for human rights internationally. There is the case of the New Zealander jailed in Myanmar for insulting the prophet Buddha, or the case of the fugitive Qatari businessman evading imprisonment over the deaths of the New Zealand triplets in the shopping centre fire a few years ago. (And I shudder to think what efforts on his behalf the New Zealander currently awaiting a potential death sentence in China on drugs charges might expect!) Like the latest two examples, these cases all bear the hallmark of New Zealand not wanting to become too involved, until public opinion demands it.
Why? The prevailing view seems to be that as a small trading nation buffeted in the seas of international economic uncertainty New Zealand cannot afford to upset, lest existing markets be threatened, or potential new ones closed off. It explains, but does not justify, the reason for soft-pedalling any criticism of Saudi Arabia’s shocking human rights record, and our timidity on the case of the Qatari businessman, because the greater prize of a potential free trade agreement with the Gulf states might be put at risk. We remain quiet on Myanmar for trade reasons too, and have been pathologically scared of saying critical of China for years now.
While the pursuit of enlightened self-interest is a legitimate foreign policy goal, it needs to be balanced by some objectivity. In recent years though our foreign policy has become too craven and trade-focussed and lacking a moral compass. In short, we have become too silent, lest we cause offence.
But relying on quiet words in diplomatic ears; nods and winks; pull-asides; text messages, or whatever, is not the way to conduct foreign policy. We have a right to expect our foreign policy to be evocative of our independence and nationhood by upholding human rights and dignity, and to stand up for New Zealanders when and where necessary. It is time to abandon the chin-dripping subservience we are lapsing into.