Recent events in our backyard have led me to reflect on what it is to be a New Zealander. At the heart of this is an assumption I’ve always held that we are a country that promotes human rights internationally.
New Zealand was established by Treaty (admittedly this was because the colonisers would have lost the fight, but still…) we were the first country to achieve universal suffrage, we helped draft the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, we accepted almost 1,000 Polish refugees even before the UN’s refugee convention was written, and when Australia refused asylum to the Tampa refugees, sending them instead to Nauru, we brought 150 of them to New Zealand.
It’s not that I thought we were perfect. Our position on South Africa and the occupation of East Timor made it clear that our Government prefers to wait until the weight of public opinion demands the right action.
I am worried though that we now only stand up for human rights when we don’t think it will affect our economic or geo-political relationships. New Zealand is spending aid funding on training the violent Indonesian police force who are occupying West Papua. We extended friendship to a regime accused, with much evidence, of attempted genocide in Sri Lanka and rather than accepting refugees turned away by Australia, we now seem to be supporting the detention camps to which these vulnerable people have been shunted. There’s even some suggestion we might send asylum seekers to these camps.
The detention camp in Nauru has been described by Amnesty International as inhumane.“The standard of life under rough tents (leaky and hot) is even not suitable for cattle. The wild and phosphoric atmosphere of Nauru causes several diseases”.
A 2013 report into conditions on Manus Island found similar reasons for concern. One detainee put it like this: “In Myanmar, our lives were in danger, and here they are also in danger. At least in Myanmar we were with our families – our wives, children, brothers and sisters”.
This week a young asylum seeker from Iran was killed in the camp on Manus Island and others seriously injured as locals employed by security guards at the detention centre attacked asylum seekers with machetes, knives and rocks.
This attack apparently followed unrest after the asylum seekers were pressured into voluntarily returning to their homelands and told there was no prospect of resettlement in Australia or any other country.
The Manus Island Police chief has said the riots were a result of Australia failing to address the concerns of the asylum seekers.
Last year John Key announced New Zealand had discussed the conditions in the camps with Julia Gillard and was happy with her assurances that the conditions were “world standard”. At this point Key said he’d consider sending New Zealand asylum seekers to these camps for processing if needed.
In doing so, he made New Zealand complicit in the continued human rights abuses at the camps.
Tony Abbott has taken Australia in an even more extreme direction. He has shut down most of the scrutiny of the camps and has chosen not to send any of the asylum seekers to New Zealand for resettlement because he seems to think he will be able to deter people from trying to reach Australia if he can create an environment as bad as the one they’re fleeing from. He doesn’t even want them to have the hope of being resettled.
Even China has spoken out about the conditions in the camps. New Zealand has not. We need to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. We need to challenge breaches of human rights and outright cruelty. That’s what being a Kiwi is about.
Jan Logie is a Green Party MP