Our Independent Foreign Policy

By   /   February 18, 2015  /   2 Comments

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Our lack of independence is now all too clear to those who voted for our position as a Security Council temporary member. Further, we have abandoned diplomacy and a cross-sector long term approach to resolving the issue of ISIS in favour of a short term aggressive strategy employed by our big brother ally.

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One of the platforms on which we ran for a seat at the UN Security Council was that we are an independent nation unbeholden to others. Coupled with this embrace of our own autonomy was our belief in the rules based approach to multilateral affairs.

Recent events, however, have shown that political pragmatism trumps all when it comes to the approach of Aotearoa under this government. Of course, as citizens, we did not need the evidence of this being all too familiar with the flip flopping approach of our Cabinet dependent on David Farrar’s latest focus group.

But, our lack of independence is now all too clear to those who voted for our position as a Security Council temporary member. Further, we have abandoned diplomacy and a cross-sector long term approach to resolving the issue of ISIS in favour of a short term aggressive strategy employed by our big brother ally. (I use the term “ISIS” here, but for no deliberate reason).

This strategy replicates recent efforts prioritising the use of force over targeted law enforcement and development strategies questioning the effectiveness of any current role suggested for the New Zealand military. We have no clear sense in New Zealand as to what would be the goals of any deployment and how success would be evaluated.

Arguably, this overall approach from the US only further compounds the conditions that brought about the creation and growth of ISIS driving further sectarianism and hatred of the West. Clearly, it is in ISIS’s interests to have western boots on the ground and to be seen as fighting the invading crusaders with the use of force approach playing into this.

In truth, I have been personally very torn over what our response to ISIS should be. Unlike others, I am not immediately opposed to New Zealand having a military role in confronting this organisation. If there is a tangible and worthwhile role for us to play appropriately using our skills, then I believe in a deployment. I believe that our military has the skills and the individuals able to make a positive contribution.

But, if we are going to place our military in a conflict zone, we need to be sure why they are there and what they can achieve. The risk to their safety has to be worth it. This is more than just a simple political calculation.

Although impossible now, I would be far more comfortable for New Zealand to take part in a military operation authorised by the Security Council under its mandate to deal with international peace and security. I would prefer our government committing to an approach that supports a rules based multilateral approach over and above hitching our wagon to one large country’s foreign policy. This is, after all, part of the platform we sold ourselves as adhering to when we ran for the Security Council.

Remember, ISIS has a transnational impact with its operations being across borders. This is not just about Iraq. ISIS is clearly active in Syria and now it would seem Libya too following the abhorrent murder of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians. From reading reports, my understanding is that there are smaller ISIS elements in other countries as well.

Given that we are talking about a non-state actor that is impacting international peace and security across borders, isn’t this exactly where the Security Council can provide leadership and promote collective action? Shouldn’t we – given our strong commitment to a multi-lateral rules based approach – be promoting this avenue? Especially now that we are at the table?

This is particularly so if we are to see this as humanitarian intervention under the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine. This doctrine is not an agreed upon rule at international law and its development is dependent on genuine consent at the international level, not selective choices of western governments. To suggest that ISIS triggers an obligation in response under R2P takes us no further in actually developing and promoting that doctrine to a point of law absent international agreement.

Further undermining the rule of law in my view is the approach of the Obama administration. Only now, some six months after commencing operations, has the administration gone to Congress seeking a war powers resolution.

In seeking this resolution, the President maintains that he already has the power to conduct the current conflict under the Constitution. This broadly contradicts his statements when running for office in 2008 and I can only presume that he is interpreting an imminent threat to the United States. To me, that interpretation is thin. Further, the terms of the resolution itself are vague providing no territorial limit for a period of up to three years.

This lack of a territorial limit simply undermines the sovereignty of surrounding countries. We have seen this with the targeting of Al Qaeda suspects in countries that have not consented to US operations. The theatre of war expands at the whim of analysts intercepting communications and is undertaken by soldiers using a joystick and a video screen.

This concerns me as a precedent for future conflict. We – as in New Zealanders – might be comfortable when the US does this now, but what if Russia or China choose to operate in a similar theatre? The Security Council is the appropriate avenue for developing the laws around “use of force”, not unilateral decision-making. Quashing the rule of law opens the door too open for abuse, and New Zealand is only complicit.

Clearly, though, the US does not want any Security Council involvement. The US does not want to operate under a separate mandate and wants to run this war on its own terms.

Further, we can presume that Russia (with its veto power) would attempt to use this to create leverage for the US to reduce current sanctions surrounding the conflict in the Ukraine. Again, this highlights the significant flaws in the Security Council. Just this week, however, we have seen Russia lead a resolution at the Security Council on targeting financing for ISIS showing there is common ground for action.

To ensure that the Security Council is not needed and to remain legitimate, the Iraqi government has invited us to join. The person presenting the invitation, Mr Al Jaafari, of course failed to mention his own role in furthering the sectarian divisions in post-Saddam Iraq. His invitation seems erringly familiar to one received from South Vietnam and it also reminds me of when President Karzai invited the UK to provide assistance in Afghanistan after signing a letter drafted by the UK.

In sum, then, we are committing to a conflict that undermines both the rule of law and our own commitments when we ran for the Security Council. We are committing to a conflict that has no clear exit strategy, does not target the specific conditions that brought about ISIS in the first place, and does nothing to deal with the long term economic problems across the Middle East and North Africa leading young men to go and fight.

That’s the price of the club.

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About the author

Michael Timmins

Michael Timmins is an expert in international human rights law. Specialising in refugee rights, Michael has worked in Egypt, the United States, Australia, Thailand, Pakistan and his home country of New Zealand across roles in advocacy, academia, and government. He is also a member of the Child Poverty Action Group's Management Committee. Michael’s writing covers international human rights, counter-terrorism, international environmental law, rule of law and accountability issues, as well as anything interesting happening in international relations.

2 Comments

  1. FreeManNZ FreeManNZ says:

    This post neatly outlines all of the many ways in which this deployment is wrong. Remembering of course that the decision will be made next week, I say mockingly as it is clear that John Key is lying about that as well as our reasons for joining any action in Iraq and Syria.

    As pointed out the world has the United Nations as a global body designed to sanction and deploy international forces in this kind of situation. That the US, UK and others soon to include NZ don’t wish to go through this process is either because, A) they would be unsuccessful in gaining the required support or B) they would lose the element of operational control they wish to have. Option B is the far more likely.

    The US is only interested in this because there is oil in the Middle East and they wish to maintain political control over the region. They seriously don’t care about fighting other’s wars on humanitarian grounds otherwise they would be deployed against Boko Haram. You can trace this trend back for decades, no oil, no war.

    That we are about to join in this senseless military action with no clear strategy or goal is the height of stupidity. Where are our diplomatic efforts? Where are our financial sanctions against the backers of IS? They are non-existent because the purpose of the fight is not what we are being led to believe.

    If we truly wanted to stop the wanton breaches of human rights being perpetrated across the Middle East we would start with Saudi Arabia were simultaneous with the killings of IS hostages they have beheaded their own citizens in similar acts of barbarity. Instead we lower our flags to half-mast when their leader dies. Hardly fitting given his track-record as a ‘moderate’.

    We should not add to the blood being spilled on the sands of Iraq or Syria. We are hardly being independent and despite protestations to the contrary we are primarily joining this action to suck up to the US.

  2. esoteric pineapples says:

    I was hoping we would not get on to the Security Council because of the attitude of this government which basically saw it as a way of increasing New Zealand’s trade with other countries.

    On the other hand, it lays bare for the world to see New Zealand for what it really is these days.