Opinion: NZ should speak up for human rights

At the opening of the recent Otago Foreign Policy School, fifth year Waikato University law and social sciences student Vinod Bal asked Minister of Foreign Affairs Hon. Nanaia Mahuta, "What will I tell my grandchildren about the position New Zealand has taken over China’s actions in Xinjiang?” In this article, Vinod looks at Wellington’s approach for responding to Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur people, and explains why a firmer stance might be required on matters that touch upon the values and principles New Zealand stands for. Vinod attended the Otago Foreign Policy School and the Foundation's Track II roundtable as one of the Foundation's NextGen representatives.
Vinod sitting at a table addressing a group

The Foundation held a Track II roundtable during the Otago Foreign Policy School conference as part of the Foundation's NextGen programme, which looks to engage a new generation of New Zealanders interested in foreign policy

Genocide. The word itself carries heavy emotional and moralistic sentiment. It is made up of two elements: genos (“race, stock, kin – those with common descent”) and cide (“the act of killing”). It refers to the deliberate extermination of a large number of people from a particular national, ethnic, racial or religious group with the intent to destroy that grouping. From the Holocaust to the Cambodian Genocide and beyond, there is unfortunately no shortage of evidence to show that genocide has been occurring across time and space; it is an enduring feature of civilisation.

I introduce the notion of genocide for a reason. In the Xinjiang region of China, the ethnic minority Uyghurs are being subjected to serious human rights abuses, which some – including the United States – have alleged to be genocide. From evidence of forced displacement to sterilization, there is an argument to be made that it is indeed occurring. Other legislatures around the world including Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Lithuania have made similar promulgations. Beijing denies the accusations, claiming its actions are part of a counterterrorism initiative and that the camps are “vocational training facilities.” Others point to systematic and serious human rights abuses but argue the threshold for genocide has not been reached. The International Criminal Court has declined to take investigative action and the UN has similarly decided against declaring the Chinese Government’s actions to be genocide.

What is New Zealand’s stance on Xinjiang? In May of this year, Parliament declared that “severe human rights abuses” were occurring against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. This was a watered-down motion – the Labour Party had the word “genocide” removed from the original wording put forward by the ACT Party. Some argued that fears of being subjected to the trade sanctions that Australia has faced over the last year or two may have influenced Parliament’s choice of words.

Vinod holding a microphone and putting a question to a speaker

Vinod asks Foreign affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta what he will be able to tell his grandchildren about New Zealand's response to China's actions in Xinjiang

Back in 1994, New Zealand was chairing the United Nations Security Council with Colin Keating in the presidency. The Rwandan Genocide was on the radar of the UNSC, but because of differing interests and priorities among the Permanent Members, cries for help from civil society were ignored while UN peacekeepers were left abandoned. New Zealand pushed resolutely for a more concerted intervention in Rwanda and championed an information campaign to bring the genocide to the fore of the world’s psyche. Keating as Chair, through President Statement S/PRST/1994/21, managed to include a semantic reference to genocide. In 2010, Rwanda honoured Keating with Rwanda’s Campaign against Genocide Medal. New Zealand had no trouble ‘calling a spade a spade’ in these circumstances.

New Zealand’s reaction to the alleged genocide occurring in Xinjiang has been less pronounced. The juxtaposition of New Zealand’s approach between the Rwandan Genocide and what is happening in Xinjiang is stark. In my opinion, New Zealand’s reaction to events in Xinjiang undermines the human rights focused foreign policy that once dominated how this proud nation did things. In my opinion it symbolises a prioritisation of auxiliary interests over human rights - something that was once the antithesis of New Zealand foreign policy.

So where do the Uyghur people turn to? While a statement from New Zealand citing that human rights violations in Xinjiang amount to genocide may not do much substantively, it does provide credence to growing international recognition of these crimes. Surely New Zealand wants to go down on the right side of history by prioritising our values and principles, like we used to do. That’s what I would like to tell my grandchildren - but right now, I won’t be able to.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Vinod Bal is a fifth year law and social science student at Waikato University. He is the co-founder of Adhikaar Aotearoa, New Zealand, a charity that supports queer and trans South Asians and has tutored law at Waikato University.

Otago Foreign Policy School and NextGen Track II

Thirty aspiring diplomats, policy makers and international commentators attended a Track II workshop and roundtable during the Otago Foreign Policy School as part of the Foundation’s NextGen programme, which looks to engage a new generation of New Zealanders interested in exploring the importance of Asia and broader international relations as a career or academic pathway.