2013: International Affairs


Well, it is the end of the year.  I wanted to buy into regular journalism practice (although I do not claim to be a journalist and nor do I claim to be at one with Cameron Slater) and do some sort of a review of 2013.  I wanted to highlight some of the themes across international affairs over the last 12 months that have resonated personally for me.  I will neglect many, so feel free to add your own highlights in the comments.

Note: Len Brown and Bevan Chuang is not an international affair for the purposes of this blog.

So, I am going to do this by continent, in no particular order.

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For me, the most interesting and exciting continent this year.  I am, however, biased having been based in Asia for the last few years.

Clearly China continues to be the focus of many geo-political experts.  Of concern, though, is the increasingly aggressive dialogue over the islands in the East China Sea in dispute between Japan and China.  This will surely continue to be an issue in 2014.

Of course, 2013 saw the very public trial and fall of Bo Xilai consistent with Xi Jining’s commitment to eradicating corruption from Chinese public life.  Bo’s trial was remarkable for its huge international media access and almost unprecedented look into Chinese political scandal.

China continues to extend its “soft power” through commitments in Africa and the South Pacific, quietly (well, maybe not so quietly) building bridges and allies across the planet.

Towards the end of the year we have seen political upheaval again in Thailand.  Fortunately this time around the protests did not result in the same violence seen in recent times. A large part of this has been the current government’s laudable approach in not calling the military in.  Thailand will see fresh elections early next year and it will be interesting whether the current Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, can convince the electorate that she is not her brother’s puppet (the former leader, now exiled, Thaksin).

The Philippines endured unheard of destruction in November this year.  This has almost disappeared from the media discourse as huge, cataclysmic natural disasters seem to become regular events  each calendar year.

Sri Lanka hosted CHOGM and apparently John Key was extremely strong on calling Sri Lanka to account for its human rights abuse during the civil war.  Well, he talked to David Cameron about it over a drink.


The revelations of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have created ripples in this region that will carry far beyond 2013.  Just this week we have seen an interim decision in New York indicating that the collection of data from telephone is probably unconstitutional.  Next year we will see more of these law suits coming through – the fascinating question will be how the Obama administration will argue this litigation.  On what basis will they justify the collection of this data?

US spying also annoyed the Brazilians.  The impressive president of Brazil, Dilma Rouseff, refused to lie down and called the Americans on their bullying behaviour.  Rouseff also represents a pleasing trend in Latin America seeing more female leadership in the region, including the recent re-election in Chile of Michelle Bachelet.

The Boston bombing was a tragic event occurring earlier this year.  The incident shows the consequences of a disturbed dogmatism leading to the deaths and injuries of the innocent.  The immediate response in the US to the bombings was extreme with the media coverage and so-called “experts” making immediate jumps to Al Qaeda connections permeating a culture of fear.  Boston, though, has shown its strength as a community – I was there in July and heard many people talk of how the city felt a tighter collective sense after the tragedy.

2013 was also the year when Guantanamo Bay remained open.


The most boring continent for me in 2013 – even Silvio Berlusconi was off his game!

I am most interested in the on-going byplay between Russia and the EU (collectively and with individual countries).  Most recently we have seen this playing out in the Ukraine.  Putin continues to bully his neighbour, but the people of Ukraine themselves see a future west and unburdened by their former colonial masters.  My sense is that Putin will not let this pass so easily…

As a human rights advocate, I continue to be concerned with the EU’s treatment of migrants.  The EU presents to the world an example of a regional, collective response to irregular migration – a model that other regions may look to replicate, including our own region up through South East Asia.  While we see incredible sharing of bio-data and information between member states in the EU, the entire focus is on border security with no primacy of human rights protection.  Meanwhile, migration routes from North Africa by sea and from Turkey into the EU (Greece) are becoming more perilous with more deaths recorded each year.

The US – EU free trade agreement has been an on-going negotiation during the year.  With similar arguments we are seeing in New Zealand around the TPPA, and particularly around state investor dispute resolution clauses, we may or may not see this agreement come to fruition in 2014.


Nelson Mandela’s passing was the seminal event of 2013.  The undoubted political leader of our time.

The focus now in South Africa, as Jacob Zuma hinted at, is to achieve a sustainable socio and economic path for the people of South Africa.  As a lawyer, I very much admire the South African Constitution as an amazing and progressive document.  Already, we have seen incredible rights regarding developments in the courts through the use of that Constitution with an active judiciary creating groundbreaking remedies, empowered by the Constitution.  But, for any change to be truly transformative, it has to be political.  That can only come from a splitting up of the ANC creating a tangible voting option at the polls.  Whether we see that soon, remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, though, the rest of 2013 saw continuing conflict in Africa.  In Mali, the Central African Republic, and now South Sudan we are seeing terrible violence.  I have been reviewing in particular the evens in the Central African Republic where the conflict is as senseless as it is terrifying.

Middle East


Need I say any more?

The spectacular failure of any political consensus on how to resolve Syria only results in more Syrians being killed every day.  The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine has failed to materialize in the face of political expediency.  Russia and China have been difficult to comprehend in their support of the Assad regime.  The people of Syria deserve so much more.  The question is, who will deliver?

On the flip side, we have seen backroom diplomacy work with Iran.  This is a significant step and engaging with Iran will only lead to a more open and transparent Iran for its citizens.  This is too great a country with its tradition of education and civil involvement to remain on the outside of the world.


I’m not sure on my naming of continents, but this will do.

In Australia we have seen an election.  The Labor Party self-imploded due to ego politics and really had no option other than losing in the end.  Now, Australia has a Prime Minister who doesn’t think much of women, thinks Climate Change is all a joke, and is doing really well at p*ssing off Indonesia.  The on-going treatment of asylum seekers in Australia is a disgrace and does nothing to promote Australia as a strong ethical leader in the region.

The TPPA negotiations have been held at a furious pace through the year.  Reportedly, New Zealand is playing a strong role in assisting the US to push this through.  With negotiations entirely in secret, as citizens we should be grateful for the stellar work of Jane Kelsey and others to keep this issue front and centre.

Across the Pacific, the “Pacific Plan Review” was provided to leaders by the former Papua New Guinea Prime Minister, Sir Mekere Morauta.  At a superficial level, the review is calling for increased cooperation by the Island states.  This follows other regional examples of multi-lateral collectivising for (primarily) economic and security concerns.  This has to be in our interests and a truly independent and robust New Zealand Aid Programme should be able to contribute in a sustainable fashion, but our current Aid programme does not have the resources to be a decent player in the region.

Back in Aotearoa, we have a government falling apart with coalition partners who have been entirely discredited leading to John Key following Chemtrails.  Chrony capitalism has been the theme of the year with not only bailouts to Steven Joyce’s mates, but also transfers of public wealth into private hands through the failed Assets Sales programme.  We have more children living in poverty – an absolute stain on our country – but no significant policy response from a government bereft of ideas.  If only we had an election soon…

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So, that’s it.  As I said, I am sure to have missed a lot!  I know I have missed a fair few…let me know your own favourite international events over 2013.

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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.


  1. Well, a fair bit has been put together here, by Michael Timmins.

    Yes, Asia, that is a place of high importance to the world now, and I worry about the increasing tensions between countries like Mainland China, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, over a few islands in the so-called “South China Sea”. I fear that with scarcer resources, and a world hungry for them, we will see more tensions and a return to geo-political strategies of the past. Yes, indeed, down the line I do not rule out some conflicts.

    Add Russia to that, as Putin and his hardly truly democratic government are hell-bent on exploiting oil, gas and other resources in the Arctic, wherever possible. His recent gestures towards a jailed oligarch critic of him, towards Pussy Riot band members and the Greenpeace protestors, to offer a form of amnesty or whatever, that is just going to be a temporary “softening”. Ultimately it will be the Russian President who decides who will get amnesty or not, so this is not such an “improvement” as some in the west see it. I see Russia returning to flex its muscles in many ways, and no way are Putin and many in Moscow and elsewhere happy with the sneaking US influence that crept in at their doorsteps in Central Asia. Ukraine is just one further place of strategic importance.

    Europe is having many challenges and problems, and I fear the good times are truly over for most living in Europe. The GFC and its fall-out are still far from resolved, and there are high social and other tensions in many countries there. Even in countries like Germany there are many working poor also. It is not to be compared with the Scandinavian countries, for better social policies. They again have an unstable grand coalition, that is the largest economy there.

    As for other European countries, including the UK, the partly perhaps a bit encouraging economic figures hide a lot of the truth. Those statistics conceal the crass social tensions there, also in France, the Netherlands and so forth, certainly also Greece, Italy and Spain, and while Michael here may show displeasure with the migration or refugee policies in Europe, he fails to realise how explosive the situation there already is. It is totally different from New Zealand, as in most European countries “integration” and “multi cultural” approaches have been declared failures there.

    There is a rise in anti migrant, anti muslim, anti foreign and even anti semitic parties and movements in many places in Europe, and future elections will show that the political situation there is becoming dicey. Do not forget, human beings, that is the majority of them, never learn much from history, as newer developments tend to dominate the sentiment and thinking of most.

    The Middle East is as unstable as ever, and despite of the US “war on terror”, the Al Qaeda types of groups are as alive as they ever were, and some fight daily in Syria, and also in spots in Iraq, and even Lybia.

    North America and especially the US have a lot more to worry about than what Edward Snowdon revealed. Yes, that is coming to bite the president now, and some changes can be expected, but I doubt that much will change in essence. We will continue to live in a semi Orwellian society and world, globally and in various countries. Even the governments and countries that criticise the US and Obama, they have their own security systems spy daily on many of their populace, that is in Europe, Latin America, Russia, China and elsewhere. Economic espionage is a huge growth industry also.

    The US is not out of economic and financial troubles, as federal and private debt there is huge. Printing money will not be possible forever, without serious consequences, so whatever will happen from next year on, will likely slow the world economy, forcing re-adjustments that had just been postponed by previous measures. They are on “uncharted territory”, as even Bill English quoted a former or present Federal Reserve spokesperson.

    Australia is facing economic difficulties, but it has always adjusted and recovered faster than New Zealand has mostly in the past, so I would not get paranoic about that. Yet some there will have to face painful adjustments, losing some car manufacturing and other business. There it is again, this economic “globalisation”, out-sourcing, off-shoring and what else it is called!

    So where does it leave New Zealand with an artificially growing economy. Had it not been for the Canterbury rebuild, the growth would hardly be that stunning. And exporting more and more milk powder and baby formula to China, that will not last, as China is already preparing to let the local market be supplied primarily by own, local producers in future, and they are restricting brands already, which will affect exporters here.

    New Zealand under this government just follows short sighted policies, like Mexicans with cell-phones. So a Hollywood director who bought a farm here, he managed to convince Key and his government, to offer a few more perks to film-makers, so they will produce more Avatar films here. All that will be temporary also, as surely other countries will try to underbid New Zealand next time.

    The race to the bottom, for workers, those that struggle, those dependent on welfare, is continuing, and only some upper and middle class New Zealanders will enjoy their chilled Chardonnay at Christmas. I say enough of them in Newmarket today, where the world just seems to look “fine” for those from Remmers, Epsom and other better off quarters. Fuck the rest they would think. If you cannot enjoy life and succeed, get out of my sight, and do not spoil my day. Yes, I saw those “spoilers” too, homeless, beggars and rough sleepers, but who cares, in NZ 2013? Surely one “leader” Key has opted for the sunny beaches of Hawaii, so he must not see all that fall-out his policies created.

    Despite all, a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all, the fight must go on in 2014!!!

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