As I write this blog I have 3 books in front of me which deal with human rights tragedies perpetrated by brutal regimes and their various international backers. One is on East Timor by John Aubrey, one called an “Inquiry into the Algerian Massacres” (which is essential in understanding the Zaoui case) and the 2013 Amnesty International Report on Sri Lanka.
The first two of these works (and many others) were available to New Zealand decision makers when they upheld the human rights abusers against the abused. And now in the age of the internet there is nowhere for politicians to hide and claim ignorance of repression and violation of the fundamental international documents by the various regimes which they wish to protect.
I still shudder when I read the MFAT briefings for Prime Minister Rowling and succeeding leaders on how to lie and pretend New Zealand would uphold international law while really setting out a strategy on how to support and cosy up to the murderers who ran Indonesia under Suharto.
It would be interesting to read the MFAT briefings on Sri Lanka for John Key. On its past form for South Africa, East Timor and Algeria ( for Ahmed Zaoui) it would provide the appropriate weasel words to justify ignoring brutal and savage repression and the most egregious of human rights abuses while focussing on trade and whatever MFAT deems to be the strategic interests of New Zealand.
John Key could of course turn to the plethora of respected human right respected reports which detail the killing machine that is the present administration of Sri Lanka. In the Annual Report of Amnesty International he would read of: Enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, excessive use of force and torture, extra-judicial killings and other ill-treatment. He could then go further and down-load the UN Human Rights Council Report of 2012 which calls for an independent enquiry in to the more than 40,000 deaths in the final five months of the government offensive in 2009 and the continued sate violence against the population.
But that would not be John Key. New Zealand foreign policy under National is based on what he and his advisers consider to be New Zealand’s economic and strategic interests and how well-regarded we are in Washington. He would have read with approval of the photo opportunities for him in Sri Lanka, with world leaders that is and not with the corpses of regime victims , and what a springboard the CHOGM conference would be for pushing New Zealand trade opportunities not just in Asia but in Africa.
Unfortunately for him British PM David Cameron has blown his cover . Cameron, beset by constant revelations of British war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and closeness to a host of horror regimes to which weapons are sold with gay abandon as well as the instruments of torture and the personnel provided to train in their implementation, has used CHOGM in Sri Lanka to try and refurbish the tarnished and tawdry image of British imperialism.
While John Key waffled about “engaging” with Sri Lanka and not using “ megaphone diplomacy” ( standard MFAT terms to excuse the most sycophantic relations with tyrants),Cameron went to the Tamil north of Sri Lanka to meet with victims of the regime and then engaged in an open dispute with the Sri Lanka President.
David Cunliffe one hopes, is paying close attention to all of this. He should be asking: what does it take to implement an independent New Zealand foreign policy based on international human rights law and principles?
The way will not be found in MFAT manuals. Nor I am afraid will it be found in some of the past practices of Labour administrations. If he look as the record of Labour in 1984 to 1990 the achievement of nuclear weapon free New Zealandwill provide him with his first steps . And the respect that we gained from that policy world-wide is still there even if National sticks firmly to the line that the policy is “not for export”.
But on almost every other foreign policy issue Labour hewed close to the tried and trusted line of doing what the British or US did. Thus Pol Pot kept his seat in the UN with New Zealand’s vote. Why? Because the Club of powerful Western nations decided that its strategic interests were served best by “containing” Vietnam. To hell with human rights principles. East Timor’s absorption into Indonesia came with Labour’s blessings and Jose Ramos Hortha pleadings about standing up for the right of self-determination were treated with scorn and disdain. Helen Clark as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee was most understanding of Indonesia’s beneficence for the people of East Timor. Mike Moore in 1997, as Labour’s Overseas Trade spokesperson, told me that it was alright for the Alliance to demand independence for East Timor and attack the record of Indonesia but in government he would have to deal with Indonesian Trade Minister Ali.
While cogitating on this and how MFAT has advocated “building bridges” with so many tyrannical regimes while speaking out the other side of the mouth and upholding human rights David need to re-examine how a Labour government could favour the interests of a leader in the brutality stakes, the Algerian military backed-regime against a genuine refugee, Ahmed Zaoui. In fact the government instructed MFAT not to investigate objectively the case of Ahmed Zaoui but to find ways to help the French, Belgian and Swiss governments to trash his reputation and confirm him as a “terrorist”. MFAT did this enthusiastically and placed before Helen Clark “information” that repression on Algeria was on the wane while trade for New Zealand, particularly Fonterra, with oil and gas rich Algeria, the darling of Bush, Blair and Sarkozy, was certain to increase. The same old story! And Labour ministers strained at the leash to be the most fervent in denouncing the “terrorist” and “woman hater” Zaoui and that he be kept in prison without being allowed to know the details of the evidence against him.
Labour now has a chance to create a new story. One which is based on the solid foundation of truth. One that restructures MFAT with new personnel who read Noam Chomsky and John Pilger and Amnesty and UN Reports and not just Gerard Hensley’s guidebook to diplomacy as a form of lying to all and sundry including your own people. A new generation is waiting for a foreign policy for New Zealand based on principle and that will end decades of shame.