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New Zealand could lead in Human Rights

New Zealand could lead in Human Rights in the proposed East Asia Regional Bloc.

Anthony Ravlich - Human Rights Council Inc.

The influence of New Zealand, and the stability of its position, in any future East Asian regional bloc could be greatly enhanced by giving greater priority to economic, social and cultural rights. A regional bloc was a major area of discussion at the East Asian Summit, which concluded in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on the 14 December. It was attended by Prime Minister Helen Clark, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Winston Peters, and Leaders from the 10 Association of Southeast Asia Nation (ASEAN) countries, ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and the Republic of Korea) and Australia, New Zealand and India.

Any such bloc could be susceptible to ideological clashes between those countries which espouse ‘Asian Values’, prioritizing economic, social and cultural rights (ESC rights), and the liberal democratic countries in the bloc which prioritize civil and political rights (CP rights). Economic, social and cultural rights ( i.e. Social Justice) include the rights to employment, fair wages, health, housing, education and an adequate standard of living while civil and political rights ( i.e. Freedom and Democracy) include traditional western liberties such as freedom of speech, association, movement, life, liberty and security of person etc.

While described as a liberal democracy New Zealand’s international position has been to promote the equal status of both sets of rights in line with the view of the United Nations (Vienna Declaration 1993). However, in my opinion, New Zealand would gain greater credibility, stability and influence in such a bloc if it gave greater priority to economic, social and cultural rights domestically. It could then be more correctly described as a social democracy.

The position of Australia and New Zealand which former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad described as the ‘caucasian’ countries may be somewhat tenuous. At the summit Mahathir Mohamad, whose vision it originally was to have East Asia regional bloc and who was still very influential at the summit opposed the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand who he regarded as representing United States interests. China also opposed our inclusion but has since changed its mind.

On 12 December in a Scoop article, ‘Clark to meet East Asia’s leaders ahead of summit’, Helen Clark was reported as seeing the summit as probably the most significant development in East Asian regional institutions since Asean was formed 38 years ago. Helen Clark added: "New Zealand exports to East Asia Summit countries constitute a significant and growing market for New Zealand – accounting for 53 per cent of all New Zealand’s trade in 2004."

This East Asian regional grouping represents about half the world's population and a fifth of global trade. The Scoop article added that New Zealand would probably be a member of the European Union – except for its geography. In the same way, it misses out on belonging to the Americas grouping.

Helen Clark stated: "If there's going to be three big regions, we've got to be linked somewhere. "We just can't afford to be excluded from developments in the region," Miss Clark said. With the United States presently excluded the emerging power China is likely to play a dominant role in any such regional bloc. While New Zealand has the support of other liberal democracies such as Japan (a close ally of the US and taking the leadership role), South Korea, India and Australia other countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore may well support China, a communist country.

In my opinion New Zealand’s interests would best served by not becoming involved in any ideological disputes (i.e. Asian Values versus liberal democracy), rather, given its stated position regarding the equal status of CP rights and ESC rights, it should retain a positive stance with respect to both groups. New Zealand could back up its ‘international stance’ by fulfilling ‘immediately’ ESC rights core obligations e.g. homelessness, child poverty, benefits below the poverty line, human rights education etc while planning to achieve higher levels of ESC rights ‘progressively’ over a period of time.

New Zealand could then be described as a social democracy akin to Finland which has justiciable ESC rights (amenable to judicial determination) in its constitution. Finland has proved an economic success story in Europe by pursuing neo-liberal policies while largely keeping its welfare system intact thereby ensuring that the talents and dreams of the people are maximized rather than severely limited by policies of exclusion, and the mediocrity that is its consequence.

In the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights Asian leaders sought to present an approach to human rights based on ‘Asian Values’ that distinguished it from the dominant Western approach. Kenneth Christie states that unlike the West the East tends to give preference to collective rights over individual rights, prefers a cultural perspective over universalism and emphasizes ESC rights over CP rights (Regime Security and Human Rights in Southeast Asia, 1995, pp206-210).

In addition, Elizabeth Hoffman explains that ‘one of the strongest arguments of Asia’s power elite is that economic, social and cultural rights is that the economic, social and cultural rights of their countries must be developed first and once these have been established in concert with stable employment and growth, the middle classes will rightfully clamour for civil and political rights and change will proceed’ ((Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific Region: Surviving the Cultural Onslaught, 1997, p89).

Furthermore, in my view, if a country gives sufficient emphasis to ESC rights it may fulfil the needs of the majority even though democracy is not enshrined in law. Although such countries can be inclined towards authoritarianism with violations of CP rights. However some so-called democratic countries can by effective manipulation of the democratic process and minimization of ESC rights in reality essentially promote the interests of an oligarchy. New Zealand could play a leading role, out of proportion to its size, in such a bloc by providing a bridge between the ideological groupings.

New Zealand is only one of 14 countries to have developed a national plan of action for human rights which includes ESC rights and as previously stated it promotes the equal status of ESC rights and CP rights at international forums. Also the New Zealand Human Rights Commission has been involved in limited education of people in the community in these ESC rights and is developing a national plan of action for human rights education. The regional bloc could give New Zealand the opportunity to forge an independent path and take a leadership role in human rights.


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