Goff Speaks To Freedom Foundion
Hon Phil Goff
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade
31 August 2000
International Freedom Foundation
Bell Gully Weir Auckland Club Building
Shortland St Auckland
31 August 2000
Thank you for your invitation to speak with you today.
As a long time supporter and member of Amnesty can I first thank you for your support through the Freedom Foundation.
It plays a critical part in ensuring the Amnesty can fulfil its role speaking out for those who are suffering for their beliefs and who cannot speak for themselves.
It’s so easy in New Zealand to talk about freedom, democracy and human rights.
Since most of us have never been deprived of these things, have never personally experienced oppression, have never lived in fear of our lives New Zealanders too seldom think about or appreciate the rights which we take for granted.
That is why it is so important that we have an organisation like Amnesty which campaigns to expose and end political imprisonment, torture, disappearances and executions.
Amnesty not only informs and stirs the conscience of New Zealanders about the suffering of people being persecuted around the world.
It provides hope for those who are victims. It reassures them that they are not forgotten, that the world is aware of their plight. It warns those who are oppressing them that they may one day be held to account for what they have done.
When I first visited East Timor in 1994 when it was under Indonesian occupation, I asked to go to Becora prison in Dili. I had with me not only the Amnesty report on East Timor, but also the names of numerous young East Timorese arrested and imprisoned for supporting an independent East Timor. I was able to ask to see a small group of them, though I was admitted only as far as the prison governor’s office.
Amnesty is important. Its research of human rights issues and exposure of abuses is invaluable.
Its reputation for reliability and integrity means that it must be taken seriously. Its strength is that it is steadfast in support of its principles but cannot be accused of extravagance and exaggeration in how it puts its case.
It is an important lobby group ensuring that governments cannot ignore human rights issues. It supplies essential countervailing pressure on governments that find it awkward to confront the human rights record of countries with which they have relationships.
Amnesty has no other vested interests which prevent it from being blunt, determined and forthright in condemnation of actions which fall short of basic human rights standards.
I would like for a moment to address the role that the New Zealand government plays on human rights issues.
The key role of foreign affairs is the promotion of New Zealand’s interests overseas whether for trade, defence or political objectives. But a further critical role is also the promotion of our core values as a nation.
New Zealanders expect their government to reflect and uphold the fundamental human rights and values that underpin our own democratic and multi-racial society.
As a signatory to international conventions such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, it is important that we promote the application of these human rights standards and obligations.
Third, it is important because promoting human rights along with participatory and inclusive forms of governance and the rule of law itself enhances political stability and economic development.
As a small country, New Zealand has a vested interest in upholding international rules and promoting peace, stability and prosperity.
We pursue human rights objectives bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally.
Through multilateral action, there has been enormous progress in establishing core human rights treaties, covering civil and political rights economic and cultural rights, racial discrimination, torture and the rights of women and children.
These set standards but the challenge of course, is to effectively implement those standards.
New Zealand adds its voice to drawing attention to human rights abuses and bringing violators to account through its involvement in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
Regionally, New Zealand promotes human rights observance through bodies such as the Asean Regional Forum and more recently the Pacific Forum.
Three weeks ago in Apia, Pacific Island foreign ministers met for the first time, and also for the first time condemned what has happened in Fiji.
As a result of New Zealand’s initiative, the Forum meeting adopted a set of principles similar to the Commonwealth’s Harare Declaration. The actions of member nations can now be judged against those standards, though as yet there is no mechanism for automatic sanctions against those who breach them.
The third avenue by which we pursue our human rights objectives is the bilateral one, dealing one-to-one with other states.
Ministry jargon for this
approach is ‘constructive engagement’.
It seeks to combine frank dialogue with where appropriate practical capacity building assistance.
The approach should be premised on what is most effective in bringing change and influencing the country that our criticism is directed against.
Megaphone diplomacy may make us feel good but may equally be not only ineffectual but also counterproductive.
On the other hand, so-called quiet diplomacy has often been so quiet that it has been mistaken for condoning an action or giving it implicit support.
The best approach is to adapt tactics to fit the country and the circumstances.
A blunt public approach may be the most effective in some circumstances. In others, for example with China, all it achieves is to bring the shutters down and to end the dialogue.
What we should not accept, however, is the view that human rights is a Western concept not applicable to the cultural circumstances of other countries. Fundamental human rights are universal, not culturally relative.
The claim that human rights are a Western value is most often used by those who control wealth and power to justify suppressing those who challenge their position.
It is the power elites, not the victims of oppression who claim that human rights are Western or alien values.
There is far greater substance to the argument of widespread commonality of core human rights and values across the world’s philosophic traditions, cultures and religions.
By consensus of 170 countries, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 confirmed that human rights are ‘universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated’.
To conclude, respect for human rights is fundamentally important for any decent society. Our obligations to promote human rights go beyond our national borders.
Human rights is and must be a central factor in our government’s conduct of foreign affairs and ought to be pursued at all levels.
Amnesty and Government share common objectives but have different roles to play in the pursuit of these objectives. Those roles complement each other.
Once again I thank Amnesty for its commitment and what it has achieved and thank you for you continued support which makes this possible.