Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Children in Detention Across the Ditch

When I first became interested in issues of social justice, as an alternatively idealistic and angsty small town teenager, I immediately presumed that human rights issues only occurred overseas. I read books about street kids in La Paz and displaced indigenous people in the Amazon and knew instantly, in my illuminated teenage way, that it was up to me to help fight for these people's rights. I'd have to prepare myself, but I had NCEA Level Two and a few phrases in foreign languages for that. And I'd have to travel, which was convenient, since that was an adventure for a small town girl. Then like the true postcolonial white (wo)man saviour, I would swoop in to these overseas nations and set everything right... or most things right, or a few things right since every little bit counts, as they told us at school assembly. (I also supposed at the time that I was one of a few to have such idealistic thoughts, but upon reaching university I found that there were scores of us in Wellington alone; we all got involved in campus politics and are now battling student debt from the Aro Valley...)

Aro Valley, Wellington.
A world and a half away from human rights violations?

If I have learnt anything since these teenage days, it is that what you see on the outside is always different from the reality. Maybe that's the sceptical PolSci student in me coming through. I do not deny that the human rights situation (to use the term loosely) in overseas countries is far graver than anything comparable in New Zealand, however, that does not mean that everything is cheery at home. Recently I wrote about the phenomenon of migrant exploitation which takes place on our dairy farms, in our fishing boats, in our homes even, and on other occasions I have written about the effects of inequality on at-risk populations within our shores. Today I want to write about a grave situation which is taking place a little further from home, but certainly not as far as La Paz or the Peruvian Amazon. This is the predicament of detained children in Australian prisons. It is an expansive topic, so this might transform into a duo of posts, but we'll see how we go.

It is the policy of the Australian government to keep children who reach Australia without a valid visa in closed detention until they are granted a visa or removed from the country. With large numbers of asylum seekers heading by sea for Australia, and the government taking a hard line against illegal immigrants, this has led to a situation where, in May last year, 983 children - who come from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan - were held in detention facilities across Australia. (The numbers are somewhat reduced now but still above 700.) Detention facilities are located not just on Christmas Island and Nauru, but also in cities such as Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and Hobart. News sites have reported on the situation affecting two teenage Indonesian boys who were just recently released from prison after having remained there for two years, in facilities designed for adults.

Hundreds of immigrant children are held in detention in Australia.

The boys / men (depending on who is telling the story) were convicted under the Migration Act 1958 for their involvement in people smuggling and, along with an older man, sentenced through the Australian courts to a 3 1/2 year jail term with a non parole period of 21 months. (You can find the update on this news site.) This happened in spite of the judges knowing about the boys' peculiar circumstances, such as their impoverished backgrounds and lack of English language speaking ability. The sentence angered many Australian lawyers, politicians and activists who noted that under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which Australia has ratified), the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall... only be used as a measure of last resort... every child deprived of liberty shall be separated from adults unless it is considered in the child's best interests not to do so. The boys have just returned home to Indonesia, but one of the pair apparently spent both Christmas and New Years Day in detention.

This is not the only case which Australian lawyers and human rights activists have been ups in arms about. A large section of Australian society is outraged that so many children have been detained in their country. There are various reports to suggest that these children, who have needless to say already been through so much fleeing their country and travelling across the seas, have been suffering from severe trauma and mental health issues. For instance, paediatricians have reported speaking to children who have been having nightmares, wetting the bed and pulling their hair out. They believe that although some of this behaviour is to be expected given the children's recent experiences, detention is only exacerbating these problems. Other reports (including one which was leaked) suggest that frightened children, who may have travelled alone and are now far from their families, are engaging in self-harm. Andrew Wilkie, an MP in Tasmania who questioned Tony Abbott about the practice of child detention, noted that children were referring to one another in the detention centres by numbers rather than names. (Tony Abbott acknowledged Wilkie's concerns, but was adamant that this was the only way to stop the boats and that the Labour government had got them into this tight spot in the first place.)

MP Andrew Wilkie and PM Tony Abbott.

A Save the Children report testified that the situation was even more dire than feared; children were going unsupervised, they were living in unhygenic conditions, some had even been sexually abused on the island. The Australian government accused Save the Children (who were providing welfare and health services on the island) of fabricating these claims and ordered an independent inquiry to be undertaken. Paul Renolds, the Chief Executive of Save the Children, held that his staff would not make up such allegations. It will take some time until we can determine the real story, but in any case the government was quick to suspend Save the Children's contract on the island pending the findings of the investigation.

The Save the Children testimony was provided as evidence to a commission of inquiry on the situation of children in detention. In 2004, the Australian Human Rights Commission examined the issue of children in detention and concluded, among other points, that the Australian government could well be breaching international human rights law to which it has subscribed. The Commission, lead by Chief Gillian Triggs, decided to launch a second inquiry ten years later, in response to growing numbers of children in detention (over 1o00 in 2013) and widespread concerns about their living conditions. The inquiry was guided by principles drawn from the Refugee Convention and the aforementioned Convention on the Rights of the Child. Last year the Commission received public submissions and conducted meetings on the topic at various locations around Australia. You can read the public submissions on this site.

HRC Chief Gillian Triggs has been embroiled in controversy.

To add another twist to this sad saga, it appears that the inquiry is now finalised but that it has not yet been released by the government. Critics accuse the government of lying low and trying to dodge responsibility. In the meantime, reports abound of detained men, women and children in Australian centres going on hunger strikes and sewing their lips together in protest at their living conditions and their indefinite detention. Large numbers of Australians have protested at this miserable situation and you can find YouTube campaigns calling for an end to the detention of children. (For example, in this one featuring Australian celebrities, we are told that "we're better than this.")

The situation in Australia is highly politicised and impassioned, and it is difficult to get the full story behind the reports and accusations. Whatever the case, large numbers of children have become political footballs and their daily lives have been particularly bleak. If you've made it to the end of this post, I encourage you to follow up on some of the links I have included here and to continue the reading. There is a lot of material out there and the topic is both frightening (especially given how close to home this is) and highly relevant today.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

End of Year Reflections

It's half past seven in the morning and I'm due to fly out of Wellington, and then New Zealand, in a few hours time. I'm still buzzing after attending a friend's wedding last night. It feels as though the year has come full circle, for it was near the beginning of this year when I was also preparing for an international flight, albeit in vastly different circumstances: bound for a conference in Mexico that time and a holiday in Germany today. Travelling is a time of action: new people, new locations, new experiences; but at the same time it is a time of quietness and reflection. It is in those places of transit such as airports and train stations, watching other people mill about and feeling a sense of contemplative solitude, that I am often most able to reflect on my life. I'm already beginning to feel suitably nostalgic and I haven't even got on the bus. (Or perhaps it was last night's wedding speeches and champagne that has made me feel this way...)

In any case, I wanted to briefly record a few observations. I went to a Christmas party the other night for my summer job in the public service. The party was international themed and swarming with hundreds of bureaucrats dressed in their best silks and colours. I spent half the night enjoying myself talking to people and dancing, and the other half perfecting the art of getting lost in the crowds and wandering pathetically about the maze of rooms in search for any familiar faces among the dirndls, kimonos and Mexican sombreros. In one of these moments I got talking to one of the sombreros: a friendly-faced woman who was happy to share some thoughts about her job. "It's a bit terrifying, isn't it?" she giggled, gesturing at all the public servants variously engaged in drinking, sampling sweet foods and posing for photos. "All these people, they spend their days helping make decisions about how to run the country. But we're just people. We make mistakes." When I nodded in agreement, she went on, "it's a shame we don't have another world. To experiment on first, you know?"

For that is the reality. There is no other world where we can trial our laws and policies and work out how to create a better society before we put our learning into action. We must resort to history books, comparative studies and thought experiments in order to to try and get it right the first time. This is a troubling prospect. Those people who govern our societies, they are only human: they may be influenced by irrelevant considerations, they may leap to conclusions, they may be swayed by personal grudges. But the decisions they make will have ripple effects across society. Decisions made by our governments, local councils, banks and health boards affect us all, for better or worse. And the individuals behind these decisions are no superhumans: they are just men and women trying to do their jobs, acting in many respects out of a willingness to help others, but also just wanting to finish work at 5pm and get back home to their partner and kids.

I believe we live in a world of incredible opportunities. The fact that I can jump on a plane in a few hours which will whisk me over to the other side of the world is nothing short of remarkable. I have no real understanding of the murky world of the internet, let alone how exactly we talk over telephones. This is a world where we live longer, where we enjoy foods from around the world, where we 3D print replacement parts of our bodies as needed. We have the ability to travel - I heard that some 1 million people are in the air at any one time - or if we prefer to stay at home, we can learn about other cultures on our laptops. Despite these opportunities, however, we humans have got ourselves into a right pickle in many ways. We have messed up our natural environment, we have the threat of nuclear warfare hanging over us, and millions of us die from hunger whereas others eat like kings.

We face very real problems as a human species, and this blog has been a way for me to capture some perspectives on global issues of our century. Yet, as I hope this blog has also demonstrated in some small way, we are also all part of the solution. It might sound soppy (again, I fully admit to currently being influenced by champagne and Wanderlust), but it is crucial that we communicate fully to resolve these problems. From my perspective, it is not that we don't have the knowledge required to address many of the issues, rather, we are not making good use of this knowledge. Or - as in the case of nuclear weapons - we are lacking the political will to make informed change. Too often we are blinded by perceived differences between races and religions, and we don't appreciate the wisdom which other people have to offer. For instance, the Maori people have an incredible amount of wisdom to contribute on issues of sustainability in New Zealand and abroad. Christian people - along with Muslims, Jews and many people of faith - have given extensive thought to issues of peace and war. What I want to continue investigating is the ways in which different people are approaching the same questions. The key is not that different groups must align in their thinking, but rather that they contribute their knowledge and perspectives to global discussions, so that those tasked with making final decisions on matters of law and policy are fully informed and act in the best interests of all. How deceptively simple.

This blog is going to be silent for the next couple of weeks. But I will resume it next year, so please do keep having a read. Enjoy the festive season!

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Nuclear Weapons Conference Wraps Up in Vienna

The Third Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons has drawn to a close in Vienna, Austria and individuals around the world now want to know what took place at the conference and what outcomes were achieved. I've done some preliminary scoping of this topic and want to share some links and thoughts of mine.

The conference has been touted as a success firstly in that it brought together a record number of attendees: with representatives from numerous civil society organisations, the ICRC, Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (the entire Red Cross body), and 158 governments (there were 148 in Mexico). As I mentioned in my last post, the list of states this time also included the United States and the United Kingdom. There were a great number of distinguished speakers present at or involved in the conference. Pope Francis and the Ban Ki-Moon delivered messages. Peter Maurer, the President of the ICRC, gave an address.

In just two days, the delegates covered an enormous amount of ground. As I read in Austria's summary of the event (a useful document: find it here), topics covered included:
  • The risks posed by nuclear weapons to human health, the environment, the economy, food security and international migration
  • The inability of global organisations to adequately respond to a nuclear disaster
  • The surrounding legal framework and the lack of a comprehensive legal norm against nuclear weapon use
  • The effects of nuclear testing on human health and the environment
  • The possibility of nuclear weapon use through human error, terrorism and cyber warfare
  • The vulnerability of command and control networks to manipulation
I am particularly happy to see that the discussion extended to the need to act with urgency due to the risk of nuclear detonation that could occur in a time of increased conflict, or even in peacetime through miscalculations. It was mentioned too that "sustainable development challenges" - the diversion of national finances to nuclear weapons investments - were addressed. This is the next key point to stress I believe: not only that nuclear weapons would create a catastrophic mess were they used, but that their testing continues to wreak havoc and that their very production damages humans and their environment.

Take a look at this video produced by ICAN which was shown at the conference. It features Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Jody Williams among others.

I was interested to see that ICAN and Amnesty International together sent a letter to Sebastian Kurz of Austria this month expressing their support for the conference. (You can read the text here.) Perhaps Amnesty International - the giant in the field of global human rights organisations - is becoming more proactive in speaking out about nuclear weapons. The impression I had until now was that, whilst Amnesty condemns the use of nuclear weapons, the NGO did not want to make disarmament a campaign focus. (Amnesty already cops criticism for spreading itself too thinly, and Amnesty's focus is human rights law as opposed to humanitarian law which aligns more readily with nuclear weapons concerns.) It will be interesting to see whether Amnesty is gradually changing its view and becoming more vocal on this issue, or whether this was simply a one-off gesture of support.

Is Amnesty on board with nuclear disarmament?

All the statements made at the conference are available online, on this website. I had a read of some and (as anticipated) was both frustrated at the statements made by Australia, the UK and US, and suitably impressed by Dell Higgie's statement for New Zealand. This is a most eloquently articulated and highly persuasive piece of writing. (Dell is becoming quite a celebrity in disarmament circles, I noticed that she features in the ICAN video, and her statement has been referenced in other addresses.)

The vibe of the US, UK and Australian statements was that nuclear disarmament is a laudable task, that the states have listened carefully to the information and that they respect the other positions in the room etc. etc. etc. but that at the end of the day you can't expect too much and you can surely only make incremental steps towards progress. The idea that disarmament must be practical and realistic was laboured. This was picked up by other groups in the conference hall and quickly used to poke fun at the nuclear weapons states. ICAN stressed that a convention banning nuclear weapons is itself practical and achievable. And I love Dell's rhetoric:

What does taking account of the "security dimension of nuclear weapons" even mean???

Sadly, the UK and Australia even went as far as to openly stress their faith in the deterrence doctrine. I have included some snippets from the statements below: the US, UK and Australia and then New Zealand, the ICRC and ICAN. Click on the headings to read the statements for yourself.

Progress requires a willing partner and a conducive strategic environment.

We collectively have the growing political will to pursue a practical disarmament agenda. We must also have a practical way to do it.

We will not relent in the practical and responsible pursuit of our disarmament goals
and we are glad to be among so many who share these goals.

Some have argued that the way to this goal is to ban nuclear weapons now, or to fix a timetable for their elimination. The UK considers that this approach fails to take account of, and thereby jeopardises, the stability and security which nuclear weapons can help to ensure.

The UK believes that the step-by-step approach through the NPT is the only way to combine the imperatives of disarmament and maintaining global stability.

We will work to create the conditions in which nuclear weapons are no longer needed. We will also maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent for as long as it is necessary.

Australia is pursuing a path that offers the most practical and realistic chance for disarmament. To be effective, disarmament must be based on high-level political will, supported by practical, sustained efforts, which we are pursuing, including through
implementation of the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ...

Deterrence remains because nuclear weapons pose an existential threat to States. One country refusing to give up its nuclear weapons imposes a very powerful constraint against others giving up their nuclear weapons, and the deterrence they provide. 

Effective disarmament must engage all the nuclear armed states substantively and constructively. It must recognise and address security as well as humanitarian concerns. 

And contrast these statements with some of those in favour of a ban on nuclear weapons (aka. a "legally-binding international mechanism to prohibit the use, production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons")

There are some who continue to argue that now is still not the time to move forward on a special regime for the abolition of nuclear weapons. They say that any such regime fails - just like the 'humanitarian consequences' approach at the very heart of this conference - to take account of the security dimension of nuclear weapons.

What exactly does "taking account of the security dimension" of nuclear weapons really mean?

Is it meant to suggest that for the foreseeable future there can be no further move toward a special regime that would abolish nuclear weapons? This must suggest, then, that somehow Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty also got it wrong - having equally failed to take account of the security dimension of nuclear weapons?

I can do no better than repeat the words of New Zealand's Attorney-General, Hon Paul East QC, who said to the ICJ in 1995 that: "If ever used, (nuclear weapons) would most likely ensure the destruction, not the maintenance of the security, of the user... The threat that these weapons represent hangs over the whole security of the international order."

Even though only a few states currently possess nuclear weapons, they are a concern to all states. Nuclear weapons and their terrible humanitarian consequences threaten the existence of each and every one of us and therefore concern us all – individually and collectively. 

All other weapons of mass destruction, namely chemical and biological weapons have been banned. Nuclear weapons – which have far worse consequences than those weapons – must now be specifically prohibited and eliminated as a matter of urgency.

 An international prohibition is the logical outcome of an examination of the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons detonation. A new legal instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons would constitute a long overdue implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This is a meaningful proposal. It would establish a comprehensive set of prohibitions and provide a framework under which the elimination of nuclear weapons can be pursued.

This is a feasible, achievable proposal. It can be negotiated now, and have normative and practical impacts.

This post has just been pulling together some info to help keep getting this discussion out there. If you're interested, click on the links to read the various statements for yourself. =)

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Warming up the Austrian Winter

Christmas is coming, but at the same time as we rush about buying Secret Santa presents and booking flights home to visit family, there is also much going on in the Aotearoa political scene. Thanks to a number of politically-minded friends of mine, I can never quite escape politics, for my facebook feed is always speckled with shared articles praising or criticising the government, or photos of people out at Model UN meets or protesting in the streets. I had to laugh today when I saw a photo of some friends engaging in a climate change demonstration - literally burying their heads in the sand over government inaction on meeting Kyoto protocol targets. Needless to say, a picture of my friend's bottom poking out of the sand at Caroline Bay on a windy Timaru day is one of the more amusing photos I've seen in a while. All strength to my friend though and to the others who supported the cause in Timaru and about the country. I personally believe it is vital to contribute to discussions on climate change and environmental degradation. You can watch a short clip about the "burying our heads in the sand" protest on this Stuff page. The protest was timed to coincide with the current UN conference on climate change in Lima, Peru. Also on this topic, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, recently released a hard-hitting report which starts the process of analysing the predicted effects of climate change on New Zealand. That's not what I want to talk about today, but I highly recommend flicking through the report. You can find more info and the relevant link on this webpage. But for now...

Cantabrians recently drew attention to climate change in an eye-catching way.
Image source: One News.

What I actually want to talk about is nuclear disarmament. There is a conference taking place at this very moment in Vienna, Austria which could result in a political process to negotiate a legally-binding treaty to ban nuclear weapons. This conference is the third in the series of conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the second of which I attended this February in Mexico. In Mexico, there were rumours right from the beginning of the event that the Austrian government would announce its intention to host a third conference. When the rumour was proved correct and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz stood to make the announcement, the hall erupted into cheers. The humanitarian initiative was to be carried forward! What many government and civil society representatives present at the conferences are hoping is that the humanitarian initiative will result in concrete outcomes, as has happened before with negotiations on cluster munitions and land mines. As I have explained in previous posts, the idea of the humanitarian initiative is to demystify nuclear weapons: to strip away the apparent prestige and power associated with the weapons to reveal them as they are, simple killing machines with the ability to take hundreds of thousands of innocent lives in one foul swoop.

The stunning Hofburg Palace in Vienna where the conference is taking place.

So what's the deal with this conference happening at the moment? There are a few aspects in particular which are significant to note. The first is that both the United States and the United Kingdom are attending the conference. The US and UK boycotted both the first and second conference, so it is very interesting that the governments have caved to public and diplomatic pressure and now see it as politically advantageous to attend the conference. Read this short article on the question if you're interested. Even if the US government, say, sticks to its guns by repeating the assertion that we can only progress by making slow, sure changes (a.k.a. the government does not support a treaty to ban weapons but only wants to make token gestures by reducing stockpiles virtually imperceptibly over many years), at least there are American and British representatives in the room, actively engaged in the negotiations with other state representatives. At least this will results in more media attention and public debate. At least there is now an increased opportunity for people representing different interests to communicate in resolving our current fraught situation.

Susan le Jeune d'Allegeershecque, Ambassador to Austria and Permanent Representative to the UN, is representing the United Kingdom at the conference.

Another notable change is that the conference is being held in a region of the world dominated by NATO states. The Mexican government knew that it would be supported throughout the conference by its neighbouring countries, since Latin American states have traditionally been nuclear free under the Treaty of Tlatelolco which set up the first nuclear weapons-free zone in a densely-populated area. Austria is a different kettle of fish. Its neighbours Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia are all NATO members: meaning that these states share nuclear capabilities and may develop nuclear weapons or host weapons on their territories. Other NATO states in the surrounding region include France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain. Austria is therefore making a bold move in hosting a conference devoted to nuclear disarmament in its capital.

Dell's statement supported by 155 countries!!

The other day I was able to attend a Wellington community forum in preparation for the Austrian conference. This forum brought together a number of Kiwi individuals who have an interest in nuclear disarmament, among them Sir Geoffrey Palmer: our former PM, the Hon. Matt Robson: former Minister for Disarmament and Marnie Lloyd, Legal and Policy Manager at New Zealand Red Cross. I was very happy to note that Sir Geoffrey regards the conference as an historical opportunity, especially given the sheer support for disarmament around the world. I want to emphasise too that New Zealand has played a leading role in garnering this support, through our secret weapon (our own peaceful weapon!) of Ambassador for Disarmament Dell Higgie. Dell Higgie, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was able to get 155 countries to sign onto a statement at the recent (October) General Assembly First Committee which condemned the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. This list of 155 countries, as Katy Donnelly of MFAT (who is currently in Vienna) noted, includes: all African states, all Latin American states, all Pacific nations with the exception of Australia, and all "Arab groupings". The outliers, unfortunately, are still the European and North American countries, although Sweden has most recently joined onto the initiative after a change in government, and Finland is apparently divided on the matter. Getting 155 countries to voice their support for disarmament (I'm using this language loosely, read the statement here to get the exact words agreed on - crucial in law and diplomacy!) was no mean feat: It has taken many years, starting with just 16 states, jumping to 80, then 125 and finally 155. We should most definitely be proud of the progress we have made.

The government of Austria is proud to host the 3rd international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons which will take place on 8 and 9 December 2014 at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. With this conference, Austria wishes to strengthen the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime and to contribute to the growing momentum to firmly anchor the humanitarian imperative in all global efforts dealing with nuclear weapons. 
See the webpage about the Austrian conference here.

But we cannot rest on our laurels, as groups like ICAN would no doubt caution us. The International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons - a global movement which brings together a whole raft of different civil society groups in countries around the world - has been campaigning hard to press governments to take this all the way and to make plans to get a treaty drafted. It doesn't need to be complicated, it just needs to be a short, snappy treaty banning the use, production and stockpiling of weapons. This would make it straightforward to all concerned, it would affirm the worldwide derision of nuclear weapons and it would put in place initiatives to monitor the reduction in nuclear stockpiles and the prevention of nuclear proliferation. ICAN held a two day civil society conference leading up to the main intergovernmental conference, and I want to finish for now with some inspiring photos showcasing the work of these tireless advocates for disarmament. Please - share the message with your friends and family and spare a thought for the campaigners in Austria as you go about your Christmas festivities! Ka kite ano!

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Exploitation on our Home Turf

It's been a while, but I'm finally back into blogging. Life caught up on me in a whirlwind of study, exams and job hunts, but I made it through unscathed and am set for an awesome summer in Poneke, Wellington. Wellington is a truly stunning city with its numerous hills, parks and sea views, and Aotearoa is a remarkable country of contrasts: rugged mountains, sweeping beaches and golden plains. Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to appreciate the splendid surroundings. Many people in New Zealand struggle to afford the necessities of life and others battle illness, domestic violence and racial prejudice. My concern today is for those individuals living in New Zealand as temporary migrant workers, who instead of being treated to the best of our Kiwi manaakitanga, or hospitality, too often become the victims of exploitation at work. There have been a number of incidents of migrant exploitation in the media lately which I want to draw on for this blog.

Aotearoa. It's beautiful, but some people suffering abuse
in our shores would rightly want to fly away and never return. (My shot.)

Who are these migrant workers?

I'm using the term "migrant workers" loosely here to refer to foreigners who travel to New Zealand on a temporary visa for the primary purpose of working. There are a number of different visa categories under which individuals can apply, for example, the Essential Skills work visa, the China Special Work Category, or the Work to Residence visa. Migrants can also come to New Zealand on a working holiday or through the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme. Thousands of people come to work in New Zealand every year. For instance, upwards of 50,000 people complete working holidays in New Zealand each year, along with 9,000+ people working in seasonal employment. In fact, one person out of every four working in New Zealand is a migrant! (See this Immigration New Zealand website and this Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) PDF for these stats.)

Migrant workers frequently hail from countries such as India, China, the Philippines, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, Ireland and the United Kingdom. They may come to New Zealand to work in industries experiencing labour shortages; for example, to work in the horticulture and viticulture industries at peak harvest times, to be caregivers for the steadily growing number of elderly New Zealanders, or to help with the Canterbury rebuild. When there aren't enough Kiwis to work in a particular industry, the government tries to actively recruit workers from overseas. The government must also ensure that there are no Kiwis able and willing to fill the relevant job vacancies before offers are made to foreigners. Before migrants can travel to New Zealand, they must gain a visa and (with some exceptions) meet requirements such as having a valid offer of employment, having appropriate qualifications, skills and experience and passing health and character checks. Whilst they are in New Zealand, migrants are expected to abide by the terms of their visa, which may specify the maximum duration of their stay and the employer for which they are entitled to work.

This man has come to New Zealand under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme in order to work over the summer in a vineyard. (Image source.)

Why are migrants at particular risk of exploitation?

Migrant workers are vulnerable since they are - in most cases - learning to adapt to a totally different culture, language and way of life. They may not have a high enough level of English to be able to adequately articulate their concerns or to seek help. They may be unaware of their legal rights, or unwilling to challenge their employer's authority. The industries where they work may see them being geographically isolated: for example, migrant workers may be based on fishing vessels, or on dairy farms out in the wop wops, in addition to being far removed from their families and traditional support structures in their homeland. Finally, the stakes may also be higher for migrant workers and they may be willing to endure almost anything to earn money. This might apply to individuals who have come from impoverished backgrounds, people who are paying off family debt through remittances, or parents who are doing all it takes to buy their children a good education.

How exactly are migrants exploited?

It depends on the situation. As soon as you do a little digging on the web, you uncover some shocking stories of migrants being paid next to nothing to do back-breaking work on farms or to work long hours as cleaners or kitchen hands. Employers may abuse their position of power by denying migrants access to a phone, by withholding their passport or money, or by threatening the migrant. Across the world, migrants are in particular danger when they rely on their employer not only for their wages, but also for their accommodation and meals. For example, domestic workers are often coerced into working far longer hours and taking on more responsibilities than they are being paid for, but they may comply with these demands out of a sense of duty towards the family which employs them.

Domestic workers may be at particular risk of exploitation due to the nature of their employment. This image of a lady working in India is featured in a UN news story.

Difficulties in Reporting Exploitation

Unfortunately, there is doubtless much more exploitation taking place in New Zealand than that which the general public is aware of. Often migrants are unable or unwilling to speak to authorities about the difficulties they are facing. The migrant may not have access to internet or a phone - these may even be withheld by the exploitative employer. The migrant may be fearful of authorities due to past experience of corruption. Additionally, some migrants may be working illegally: their visas may have expired meaning that they are overstayers, or they may be working when their particular visa does not allow this. These migrants are thus anxious that they will be punished themselves if they come forward. (The employer may also be well aware that the migrant is not supposed to be working and may use this to their advantage.) The government has recognised this problem and if you look at the pages on migrant exploitation by Immigration New Zealand (INZ), for example, see this factsheet, it is stressed that migrants should come forward whatever their visa status may be. INZ, New Zealand Police and the Labour Inspectorate will help the worker even if they are here without the right visa.

Why has migrant exploitation been in the news recently?

A number of cases of exploitation have recently been exposed and the public has been understandably outraged at how these workers have been treated.

At the start of last week, the perpetrator of what has been described as an "immigration scam" involving the exploitation of Chinese chefs, was found guilty in the Wellington District Court on seven charges, sentenced to home detention and forced to complete community work. Jinyan Zhang and her husband persuaded the chefs to pay their immigration firm many thousands of dollars in return for visas and offers of employment. In fact, the jobs did not exist and the chefs were instead made to work for less than the minimum wage in unpleasant conditions. Jinyan has since had her licence as an immigration adviser revoked. Read more in this Scoop articleI am not sure whether or not Jinyan grew up in New Zealand, but the unfortunate reality is that those employers who exploit migrants have often been former migrants themselves. 

That same week, the owners of JP and JD Bowden Partnership, a Christchurch milk distribution business, were found to be in breach of the Wages Protection Act for their mistreatment of a migrant worker. The migrant worker in question was paid only $4.37 an hour and was also forced to pay thousands of dollars of employment premiums on top of this. You can find out more in this TVNZ article.

Although many instances of migrant abuse go undiscovered, it is good when exploitation is uncovered and workers can be compensated. Image source here.

Also this month, an Auckland employer, Norajane Colos, was required to pay compensation to the workers she had employed and exploited at her sole-directed "E-Advance" company. The stated intention of E-Advance was to assist migrants in finding jobs, however, a number of migrants were frequently refused pay, pressured into lending the company money and (when they ran out of money for rent), accommodated in premises which had no showers or toilets and where they subsisted mostly on fruit and instant noodles. E-Advance has now been struck off the Company Register. Look at this NZ Herald article to get the full story.

What can we do to combat this exploitation?

In terms of New Zealand as a whole, the government has made the investigation of migrant exploitation one of its immigration policies. This way, the government can both ensure that people living in our shores are protected, whilst also maintaining our international reputation as a country of choice for future skilled migrants. The government is spending $7m to employ more labour inspectors and immigration officers for the Canterbury rebuild. Several government agencies are teaming together to help educate migrants workers in Canterbury on their employment relations, tax, and health and safety rights. One of the aims of this initiative, dubbed the "Cross Agency Approach to Migrant Workers," seems to be the production of accessible materials which migrant workers could pick up and use for handy reference. See this MBIE case study for more information.

As individual New Zealanders, we can look out for our fellow students, workmates and neighbours. If we hear about any dodgy employment practices, we can make discreet enquiries and, if necessary, draw the issue to the attention of the police. We can also keep an eye out for relevant seminars and publications on migrant exploitation. Let's create a country where the outward beauty that we appreciate extends to high employment standards and an intolerance of all forms of worker exploitation.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Peace Talk with Sigmund Freud!

Lots has happened in my life in a short space of time. Unfortunately this has left little time for staying up to date with current affairs - home raids, hail storms and the like - let alone for writing my blog. My end of year exams are also fast approaching so this blog will be fairly quiet over the next few weeks, but I hope to revive it come November. But here I am this morning determining to get something down not on paper, [IRD instructs me to "say goodbye to paper" on my last letter from them] but in pixels, as it were, and I'm going to return to one of my favourite topics: war and peace.

(But not this particular war and peace!)

They say that women, upon falling pregnant, notice other pregnant women everywhere. In other words, once you've taken an interest in a certain topic, you wind up encountering it all the time. It's been like that for me this year with peace initiatives. Now that I've got somewhat involved with peace movements in New Zealand, I get invited to events, I meet peace activists, I keep getting recommended articles to read... suddenly it seems to me as if every second person is just as interested in the topic as I am. (Perhaps they always have been and I'm just a slow learner!) Truly though, we have an impressive number of groups promoting peace in the community. These include faith-based groups, such as Sokka Gakkai - an offshoot of Buddhism which emphasises human rights, sustainability and peace - and my own Anglican church which has turned its attention to the ongoing suffering in the Middle East. In addition there are research centres like Otago University's Peace and Conflict Studies, community organisations like Peace Movement Aotearoa and branches such as the United Nations Association of New Zealand. There are many calendar days given over to reflection on peace. I wrote a post following the August commemorations of the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945 and just last week I attended an event marking the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. We have all heard of Armistice Day and ANZAC Day, at which we acknowledge the sacrifice made by our soldiers in the wars and wish for future peace and security.

Mutiple days are given over to reflection on war and peace.

Over the ages, we humans have struggled with the idea of peace. Are humans inherently violent? Is peace desirable? If it is, how is it possible for us to become peaceful? I'm doing a paper on political philosophy at the moment and thought I could share some of the views we've been exposed to from thinkers such as Kant, Hegel and Butler. I want to start with Sigmund Freud. Most famous as the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud also philosophised on peace. He believed that we humans are caught between the conflicting drives of Eros (the desire to preserve) and Thanatos (the desire to destroy.) It was Freud's belief that man will always be caught in this struggle between Eros and Thanatos, and that this individual conflict also plays out on a societal level. The two drives are necessary for our existence and neither is inherently detrimental. For example, the act of loving another person is influenced by Eros - as we protect and nurture that person - as well as by Thanatos - as we possess that person and jealously guard him from anybody else who might dare to also love him. Freud thought it unlikely that we ever successfully overcome our aggressive tendencies, so wrought are they in the human psyche.

Freud's letter Why War? to Einstein is good to read.

Does this mean that we should immediately give up on empty ideals for peace? Not at all. Freud believed that, even though we will always struggle with Thanatos, we should attempt to repress our aggressive instincts. In Freud's own words, (in his letter to Albert Einstein Why War?), "it is not a matter of fully removing the human inclination to aggression; one can attempt to divert it in such a way that it need not find expression in war." This diversion could be created by instead appealing to Eros, for example, by placing a high emphasis on creating bonds between others so that we are less likely inflict violence on one another. "Everything that creates emotional bonds among human beings must work against war." Freud postulated that over time, as humans journey towards an understanding of progress or civilisation, that humans were learning to become more co-operative and peaceful. He noted that, "among the psychological features [since Freud was of course the founder of psychoanalysis] of civilisation two seem to be the most important: the strengthening of the intellect, which is beginning to dominate the instinctive life... and the internalisation of the tendency towards aggression." Freud pronounced himself a pacifist not because he thought that complete peace was achievable, but on the grounds of principle, because it was the right thing to do.

J.A. Panetta's representation of Eros and Thanatos.

Perhaps we should take Freud's writings with a grain of salt. After all, Freud did himself concede that, "not much is achieved by calling the unworldly theoretician [aka the philosopher] to solve practical problems." He also had a few ideas which seem misplaced to say the least. For example, his concern about the modern willingness to curb sexual tendencies lead him to remark that this could, "lead to the extinction of the human race, because it compromises the sexual function in more than one respect, and even today uncivilised races and backward strata of the population are multiplying more rapidly than those with a high level of culture." I had to read this a couple of times before I could take Freud seriously, as if expecting to suddenly notice a handwritten lol scrawled on the edge of the paper. (It seems completely out of place for a man one minute advocating peace and touting the benefits of universal human rights to be holding such apparently racist views!) Naturally Freud has his own human failings and we should always retain a healthy degree of scepticism about his writings. However, I do believe his thoughts on war and peace have some helpful insights for us today.

What does this mean for disarmament?

Much of Freud's analysis really resonates with me. When I have talk to people about nuclear disarmament, many are quick to retort that total disarmament is an unrealistic and absurd goal. In response to this I would say that just because a particular goal is challenging, this does not make it any less worth striving for. It may only stress the need to get as close as we can towards this goal, even if the goal itself may prove impossible.

In my opinion, it is far better to strive for disarmament and make small but significant steps in reducing nuclear stockpiles around the world, than it is to do nothing and risk total devastation of one or more human communities. Work towards disarmament has its own costs, it takes time and money in terms of research and advocacy, however, what monetary costs could ever match up to that of potential human lives? I believe we are compelled to curb mankind's aggressive Thanatos tendencies by promoting peace, and to give Thanatos less outlet by promoting disarmament and taking away the potential for mass death.

Finally, it is interesting to note that right back in 1933, Freud was highly concerned about modern warfare and its unprecedented potential for destruction. He noted darkly, "a future war, because of such great advances in the means of destruction, would mean the extermination of one or both adversaries." This is, in my view, all the more reason for us to take seriously our obligations to work for peace.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Introducing Human Rights Enthusiast Chennoah Pentecost Walford!

Everybody knows one of them. Those people who have an insane amount of energy, who are buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm. People who don't just express dismay when something bothers them, but who immediately start brainstorming how they can take action. They can get even the most complacent individuals rallying behind a cause. They have a genuine concern for others, a special smile and joke for all their friends. They try new things and are not afraid to be a little un-PC. I'm sure you know at least one of these people. For me, Chennoah Pentecost Walford springs to mind.

Chennoah! Her photo running for Equity Officer.

Chennoah and I lived in the same hall in our first year of university. We quickly realised we had much in common, both being Pols / IR students and ardent supporters of Amnesty International. At first I felt slightly intimidated by this larger-than-life, articulate woman, but I quickly came to appreciate Chennoah's friendship. Chennoah has definitely been an inspiration for me and I know she has inspired many others. So it makes sense to profile Chen as a politically-engaged individual who is determined to advance causes that she cares about and play her part in making the world a better place. I caught up with Chennoah yesterday morning over a coffee to learn more about the individual behind the activism.

Chennoah grew up in a loving family near Tauranga, in semi-rural Papamoa - not that it can be described as rural now. Her best memories are connected to her family and the land: bonfires on the beach, potluck dinners, eating her Mum's shellfish fritters (which she hated!) and digging up pipis with her cousins. My cousin liked to bite off their tongues, she told me with a laugh, before describing the process. Yeah, that's a bit gross, sorry... Her parents separated when she was young, but she can still remember the time when the family lived in a green house bus with stained glass windows and when her Dad had dreds down to his bum. Her mother raised her and her brother as a solo Mum. It is clear that Chennoah's mother has had a great influence on her, as Chen notes her mother's determination, her love for her children and her engagement with the local community.

Chennoah aged 14 - the Amnesty rebel!

I have only known Chennoah as an extrovert, a "people person" as she described herself in her recent campaign for Equity Officer. So it was interesting to learn that Chen had been quiet and reserved at primary. Once at high school, however, Chennoah set her mind to change. I know that when Chennoah sets her mind to something, nothing can weaken her resolve! In little time, Chen was involved with World Vision, SADD, arts festivals and the theatre scene in Tauranga. In her final year, she became Head Girl. I think people were surprised at first, Chennoah mused, because I wasn't the most conventional head girl. But they came to accept me. They even got used to my weird speeches in assembly! When she wasn't head girl, Chennoah was "the cluster bomb girl." A member of the school's Amnesty International group, she got fired up about banning cluster munitions and was busy making origami munitions and campaigning around the school grounds.

What led Chennoah to become interested in Amnesty? She was greatly influenced by two women: a Spanish teacher at her high school who also led the Amnesty group, and the mother of her intermediate English teacher, a long-time supporter who first introducued her to the organisation's work. Furthermore, growing up in the Bay of Plenty (which doesn't always live up to its name), Chennoah had been exposed to poverty from an early age. She had seen the hardship single mothers can experience. Being a mother is not valued in our society, Chennoah opines, it is not seen as a good economic move, even though it's such a valuable job raising children who can contribute to society. My Mum did very well in a system that didn't appreciate her. Chen came to identify with those who are struggling. It was only natural that Amnesty International, an organisation with a vision to help the vulnerable, would appeal to Chennoah. Moreover, Chen was struck by the magnitude of human rights abuses around the world which she learnt about through Amnesty. She had to learn more. As a fellow Amnesty member, I can confirm that Amnesty provides a wealth of information on global issues to high school students, from campaigns to reintegrate child soldiers in Sudan to women's rights activism in Myanmar. This is information that students are not normally exposed to as part of the curriculum.

The flat on campus - and the eviction squad!

Drawn to the capital for its political scene and vibrant culture, Chennoah enrolled in an LLB / BA at Vic Uni. She carried the Amnesty flame with her, getting involved in Amnesty on Campus. Chen and I had lots of fun putting on some great Amnesty events. My personal highlights include our tealight acoustics gig for freedom - with live music, cheap drinks, stalls with info about rights issues and a huge Amnesty logo made of candles. To raise awareness of the Arms Trade Treaty we gave out bananas with gun-shaped petitions tacked to the sides. (There are more regulations on the international trade in bananas than guns!) When it came to forced evicitions on the West Bank, it was Chen's idea to set up a "flat" on campus, complete with sunken couch, desk and scattered clothes and textbooks. The flat was ceremoniously evicted at lunchtime by fellow students dressed as police officers wielding cardboard batons. As well as organising university events, Chennoah attended the Amnesty AGMs in Auckland. When a role came up as Youth Co-opte on the Governance Board, Chennoah asked me if I thought she should apply. You'd be great, I said, but do you realistically have enough time for it? Study, part-time work and theatre productions sprang to mind. Chennoah just shrugged. Of course she'd have time. If it's something Chennoah cares about, somehow (I actually don't know how!) she is able to fit it into her hectic schedule. I've got good at planning, Chennoah confessed yesterday with a smile.

I know Chennoah primarily as an Amnesty supporter, but of course this is just part of what she does. Another great love of Chen's is drama. From a young age she was involved in theatre, and at high school and university she has acted in numerous productions. One group in particular, Unboxed Theatre (formerly known at The Clitlective), combines Chennoah's love for theatre with her advocacy. Unboxed Theatre puts on productions drawing attention to feminist causes, such as gender discrimination and sexual abuse. As well as feminism, Chennoah is concerned about the environment. A supporter of Gen Zero, Chen was part of the notorious 2012 demonstration to "expose climate change" which saw over fifty young people strip down to their undies on the trains and then march to Parliament.

Gen Zero's naked truth about climate change.

I asked Chennoah what, in her view, are the major issues for New Zealand and the world. In Aotearoa, Chen believes social attitudes can unwittingly cause others harm. The predominant view in our societies seems to be that hard work produces wealth, but although this is the case for many, it doesn't hold true for everyone. Some people, Chennoah explained, experience barriers which are almost impossible to overcome. People might find it harder to achieve highly due to their race, their gender, or due to disability. Chennoah believes we must improve the way we treat minority groups. Next year, Chen will be Equity Officer for student union VUWSA, a role which will see her ensure minority groups on campus are well-represented. Globally, Chennoah sees education as a major part of any plans for poverty-alleviation. Through increased education, we can support people to break the poverty cycle, she tells me, and, educating women is particularly important. Education provides people with more life opportunities and a more secure future.

So would Chennoah describe herself as a political person? Not particularly. At least, not in the sense that she will always align with a certain party. Sure, she knows who she's voting for  (has voted for - make sure to vote, last chance tomorrow aka Saturday!!) in the election, but Chen is more interested in separate social issues and how to achieve progress on these issues than in any particular ideological viewpoint. And does Chennoah have any advice for people who are interested in human rights and social justice? Chen didn't want to comment fully at this stage of her life, but she does recommend that we all concentrate on our own particular skills and interests. Find your area of passion for change. It might be artistic, it might be academic, it might be within your family or out in the community. There is so much that you can do. Work out where your niche is! I reckon that's pretty solid advice for us all. Thanks Chennoah for your time!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Meet the Candidates - Who Said Politics Can't Be Fun?

Last night, from 7.30 to about 9.30pm, the notorious "Meet The Candidates" election debate was held in the Aro Valley Community Centre to packed audiences. My friend and I waited until 7pm to head down to the Valley. Other friends had arrived half an hour earlier to get good seats, but we were taking our chances. On second thoughts, as we neared the venue I text a friend asking if he could save us some seats. "Umm..." was the reply, "I would, but we're packed in here like sardines already!"

Meet the Candidates last night in Te Aro.

The centre was indeed crammed with men and women both young and old. People were peering through the windows and hanging around the outside doors to listen in. My friend and I found a vantage point alongside some uni friends standing on the outside ramp, looking in the back windows. It turned out to be a fortuitous position, for we could clearly see the candidates and observe the people milling around outside, whilst enjoying the cooler night air away from the indoor stuffiness.

Who says students aren't interested in politics?

The evening was full of jokes and teasing, cheers and boos from the audience and much squirting of water pistols. Candidates were introduced by Radio New Zealand's infamous Bryan Crump and given four minutes to convince the audience to vote for them. This was followed by a Q and A session. Once the speaker exceeded their allocated time, a bell was rung furiously and they were promptly zapped by an enthusiastic timekeeper brandishing a water pistol. There were speakers from NZ First, National, Labour, the Greens, Legalise Cannabis, Democrats for Social Credit, Internet Mana and the Conservative Party, as well as some independent candidates.

This man was dressed for the occasion.

Hugh Barr, the NZ First Candidate, declared that his party did not support the TPP and certainly would not give tracts of New Zealand away to transnational corporations. He also insisted, "Remember the Super Gold card! It'll be there for you in a few years... Tell your parents and grandparents!" At which point Barr was squirted by the water pistol man, leading Bryan Crump to ceremoniously declare, "you are baptised!"

Alister Gregory of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannibas Party.
To the left, an independent candidate: Huimaono Karena Puhi.

Alistair Gregory of the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party stressed that cannabis should be decriminalised when used for spiritual or medicinal purposes. He argued that the state needs to engage in an honest discussion on the use of the drug. "Cannabis is an election issue," he cried, "other parties are finally starting to wake up to this fact!" When pressed to comment on other issues, Alistair reiterated, "legalise cannabis!"

James Knuckley of Social... Wrong. Democratics... Wrong. Democrats for Social Change? Wrong! Aha, Democrats for Social Credit... spoke about the importance of lifting people out of poverty and reducing the shame associated with receiving the benefit. (Reminiscent of my discussions with Seb as recorded in my last post.) A viable policy solution for James is the provision of the Universal Basic Income, which has become a reality in Switzerland. Another solution is to tax financial transactions.

Grant Robertson of Labour.

Grant Robertson of Labour talked about the need to address the issue of poverty, in light of people living on the street and young families struggling to make ends meet. Labour would lift the minimum wage and provide more emergency social housing in our cities. Robertson also insisted (to some groans from the audience) that he "hasn't had enough dirty politics" and that New Zealanders are not able to trust National politicians who have been embroiled in smear campaigns and attack politics. "There is only one undecided voter in this room," Robertson crowed at the end of his speech, "and that's Paul Foster-Bell's campaign manager."

James Shaw of the Greens had the people laughing.

James Shaw of the Greens was, unsurprisingly, the most popular speaker. He was also skilled in playing the audience, suavely making a show of taking his jacket off when he got drenched by the water pistols. Shaw noted that over the last 30 years, New Zealand has gone from being one of the most, to one of the least, equal societies in the OECD. The top 1% of New Zealanders now own 16% of New Zealand's wealth. In addition, our environment has deteriorated. 60% of our rivers are now unswimmable and our carbon emissions have more than doubled. The Greens would provide an adequate minimum wage, free off-peak public transport and an end to deep sea oil drilling.

First on the left: Brian Hooper of the Conservative Party.
Speaking: James Knuckley of Democrats for Social Change.
Fourth in the line: Bryan Crump of Radio New Zealand.

Callum Valentine of the Internet Mana party received little support and looked rather worse for wear as he stepped away from the mike. "My name is Callum and I am standing for..." he began, only to be cut off by an impatient, "Bryan already told us that!" I couldn't catch much of the rest, for it was drowned out by hecklers. "The Internet Party is for the poor, for unions, for..." "Log off!" "We are a diverse mix of activism, young faces and..." "Ignorance!" There was a roar of laughter when Callum promised Internet Mana would investigate crowd sourcing government policies. Callum battled on bravely, only to be ridiculed again when it was revealed that Internet Mana would provide free tertiary education. It was no doubt a long night for Callum.

Paul Poster-Bell of National.

Paul Foster-Bell of National also had no easy task ahead of him. He looked resigned to what was in store, probably contenting himself with the thought that it was only going to be another hour and that National is still topping the polls anyway. Again, I didn't hear much of his talk, because of the booing (which I find really rude and annoying.) One of the few things I did pick up though that National has provided world-class treatment for cancer. Foster-Bell did get a good line in though when he noted that he and Robertson share some similarities. When Robertson shook his head emphatically, Foster-Bell said with a grin, "ah, but we both want David Cunliffe to lose the election."

That's not all of the candidates - I missed some and left early - but you get the general idea. Just to wrap up quickly, if you haven't already, do make sure you're enrolled to vote, and do vote on the day. The Electoral Commission has certainly gone to a lot of trouble to make sure people are informed about what's happening - with signs plastered on busstops and billboards assuring us that our one vote is worth just the same as anyone else's. Political debates are fun to go to so you can get an idea of who's standing in your electorate, but the best thing in my opinion is to go online and do your own research looking at the party websites and reading their policies. Kia kaha!