Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Listen Up! Today the Government Announces Plans for Iraq

The afternoon of my flight from Wellington to Christchurch is clear and cloudless, and I’m disappointed to find that my window seat has been taken. A guy about my age, with thick tattooed biceps protruding from under a black singlet, smiles innocently at me.
“You hadn’t come so I figured I’d just sit here. Hope you don’t mind. I’m Justin by the way.” Justin’s cleanshaven face seems at odds with his rough, working man’s body. By the time the safety demo has finished, I’ve learnt that Justin grew up in my hometown and is headed south to visit his girlfriend of two years for the weekend."
“I haven’t seen my Missus since Christmas y’know.”
“That’s tough, how come?”
“Oh just army stuff man. I’m training at the base in Palmy.”
“Is it hard doing long distance?”
“Yeah it's hard. But I call her every day. And we text all the time. She’s going to varsity soon.”
“Up north?”
“Nah. Dunedin.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yeah, but if she came up…”
“Well, we’re waiting to hear about Iraq at the moment, right? If John Key’s gonna send troops to fight ISIL.”
“Would you go?”
“It depends.” Justin fingers a tattoo and the design crinkles under his nail. “I’d have to talk to Mum and Dad. And my Missus, she don’t want me to go. She keeps telling me scary stuff about ISIL she hears on the news. The beheadings and that.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Me?” Justin looks thoughtfully out over Cook Strait, across the speckled white caps of the waves towards the South Island. When he turns back, his eyes are sparkling. "You gotta think about your country too," he replies cheerfully. "I'll know when the time comes." That was two weekends ago.

The government will release details of involvement in Iraq in Parliament today.

Justin (not his real name) is one of a number of Kiwi soldiers who will now be giving serious consideration to the life-changing decision of whether or not to travel to Iraq with a New Zealand deployment. It is all but confirmed that the government will send troops to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL; the decision was given the green light by Cabinet yesterday and will be debated in Parliament from 2pm today. Foreign policy decisions of this nature are a matter for the Executive government, so it is not necessary for National to amass support for a deployment through a vote in Parliament. Today's ministerial statement to Parliament will be an opportunity for John Key to set out the action plan in Iraq after months of difficult negotiations.

Although the finer details of the deployment - for example, the legal status of New Zealand troops and the structure of the army - are yet to be made public, many facts are already well-known. About 100 New Zealand soldiers will be sent to Iraq, most likely to the US training base Camp Taji north of Baghdad, in a training capacity only. This distinction is important, for the government insists that New Zealand is not getting involved in fighting and is not sending combat troops. Our men and women would be tasked with training soldiers in the Iraq army so the Iraqis can master new tactics to help defeat ISIL. In addition, New Zealand may help in intelligence gathering. New Zealanders won't go on military exercises and would only take up arms for self-defence purposes. They will likely be accompanied by Australian troops (possibly 300 Australians) in an alliance reminiscent of ANZAC, and there is no exit strategy in place at this point in time.

Gerry Brownlee (Defence Minister) and John Key.

New Zealanders around the country will no doubt be keenly following the updates from Parliament today. Opposition politicians, political commentators and academics in particular will be quick to subject the government's plans to scrutiny. There is already a great deal of debate taking place as to whether or not the government is making the right decision... would New Zealand's contribution even be effective? are we putting our soldiers and potentially our civilians in danger pointlessly? what other options exist that may have less adverse effects for all concerned?

According to the government, New Zealand cannot sit back and stay out of Iraq. ISIL is abhorrent and brutal and must be stopped. New Zealanders in the region are at risk, as well as New Zealanders in locations around the world which could be subject to terror attacks. For instance, New Zealanders have lost their lives in the past in 9/11 and the Bali bombings, and we cannot let this happen again. It is necessary to fight ISIL before they become too strong. Furthermore, around 60 other countries are supporting the Iraqi government, so it would be callous of New Zealand to refuse. John Key famously told the BBC that this is the price to pay for being part of the club.

The implication of this statement is that sending troops to Iraq is a gesture of solidarity with countries like the US, UK, and Australia who New Zealand would rely on in the event of a security lapse. In the wake of ISIL's rise, the government has committed more humanitarian aid to the region and beefed up security measures at home (for instance, New Zealand citizens suspected of being linked to ISIL are being observed), but the government has now decided it is to take action in the international arena. Key has noted that polls are showing that New Zealanders generally support involvement in Iraq. For instance, the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll showed that a majority of 48% of Kiwis would support sending troops abroad. (42% would not support this move and 10% were undecided.)

Murray McCully and Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Foreign Ministers of New Zealand and Iraq.

Professor Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies is one of the sceptics. He argues that past experience should tell us that foreign involvement in the Middle East is only going to make the situation worse. Decisions taken by Western countries to bomb or arm IS will fail to bring peace and security to the region and will only lead to more terrorism and violence. Research tells us, he says, that terror attacks undertaken by al-Qaeda and ISIL have been arisen from a desire to take revenge on Westerners who have intervened in the region. Jackson views Western policies towards the Middle East harshly, as short-sighted and ill-informed.

Commentator Bryce Edwards echoes the sentiment sending troops to Iraq would be ineffective. 100 New Zealanders, however skillful they may be, are little more than a drop in the bucket, and it is the symbolism of the move that is most important: the extra flag being hoisted in the war effort. Our government is focused on the symbolic importance of providing greater political legitimacy to the actions of Western allies. However, Edwards believes we would be better to investigate other options of contributing to Iraq, such as increasing diplomatic efforts in the region, upping humanitarian aid and condemning Saudi funding of ISIL. He warns us to make no mistake about it, this move is political and we are being fooled if we think it is based on humanitarian reasons.

Is sending troops to Iraq the best way to fight ISIL?

It is clear that the government has faced international pressure to commit troops to the Middle East from a number of fronts. Barack Obama called for a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern forces, Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari came to the country recently to meet with officials and request assistance, and the British have made a similar plea. The government will engage in negotiations with Australia's Tony Abbott when he arrives in New Zealand this Friday. Yet should New Zealand make a stand and refuse to bow to international pressure?

Journalist Jon Stephenson argues that committing troops to Iraq would succeed only in heightening the risk to New Zealand: by placing our soldiers in harm's way and by increasing the likelihood of ISIL wanting to attack New Zealanders in retaliation. Other critics have noted that the risk of Iraqi troops defecting and turning their arms against New Zealanders cannot be ignored. Stephenson views the Iraqi army as woefully ineffective and believes it will take a long time for Iraq to find much-needed political solutions to the sectarian violence which is tearing its country apart.

Kennedy Graham of the Greens.

Journalist Jon Stephenson.

Another major bone of contention is the government's insistence that it does not need the support of Parliament in order to make this decision. Whilst this is factually correct, some individuals are arguing that the government would be better to seek parliamentary support, or even that it is undemocratic not to have a majority in the House. Victoria University lecturer Robert Ayson believes that the government should only proceed when it has the support of the House, especially given that the situation in Iraq may change rapidly. Kennedy Graham, the Greens spokesperson for Defence, labelled the government's actions as politically improper. Labour, the Greens, United Future, the Maori Party and New Zealand First do not support military involvement in Iraq, the only party siding with National - albeit reluctantly - is ACT. According to political commentator Gordon Campbell, the government's mandate is weak as it, appears to lack authority and support (a) among the Parliament of Iraq that we are supposed to be helping and (b) among the public here at home.

The government's response to these criticisms so far has been that polls show it does have widespread public support for this move, that troops are only travelling overseas in a supporting role, and that it is necessary to make the hard decisions sometimes. John Key has insisted that New Zealand is not bowing to international pressure and is making an independent decision. Finally, Key has stated that other opposition parties are speaking out against deployment because they see it will give them a political edge, when in reality, in their heart of hearts they know the right thing to do is to send troops.

Whatever the case, it is clear that the government's decision will have enormous repercussions on life in New Zealand (not to mention in Iraq): on our foreign relations, on National's popularity, and most importantly, on the lives of individuals like Justin, who may find themselves hoping on a plane, this time bound for the Middle East, in only a matter of months.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Soaking up the Sun... and Powering the Country. Renewable Energy Revolution in Germany.

There's a joke in Germany that you need upwards of five different rubbish bins just to recycle a teabag. (You imagine having to separate out the tea leaves, bag, string, paper label, even the little staple connecting it all together...) The Germans are certainly very fussy - or should we say efficient? - when it comes to their recycling. Like us Kiwis, the German people have built up an impressive culture of sustainability and environmental stewardship over the years. The German recycling system is highly specialised, the countryside is criss-crossed by woodlands, and the locals have a great appreciation of the outdoors. You can understand why New Zealand is a popular travel destination for this nation of hikers and skiers. Moreover, it seems that Germany is well on-track to becoming a renewable energy economy.

Green energy - the way of the future and here for good?

In 2000, the German federal government instigated the much-touted Energiewende (Energy Transition) policy which set the strategic direction of the energy sector for decades to come. The strategy aims to oversee a transition to renewable energy, with 50% of Germany's electricity predicted to come from renewables in 2050. I travelled through parts of southern Germany a few weeks back and was impressed to see the great number of wind turbines dotting the fields, as well as the solar panels gracing the roofs of farmhouses. We would drive past whole fields of solar panels, with the big black squares angling optimistically upward to the stormy winter skies.

Solar panels in the fields and on house roofs.
Germany, December 2014.

Germany's Green Party has been a powerful political force, and Merkel's current Christian Democratic Union & Social Democratic Party coalition is also determined to pave the way to a sustainable future. The government is phasing-out coal and nuclear energy and heavily subsidising solar, wind and biogas production. After the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, in response to widespread public disenchantment with nuclear power, the decision was made to close eight nuclear reactors and to phase out all nuclear power generation by 2022. Germany didn't want to risk a disaster like that experienced by Japan, even if this meant getting rid of one of its back-up power supplies in a difficult era of transition.

Germany has made remarkable progress in its energy transition. Between 1990 and 2010, renewables grew 10 times faster in Germany than the OECD average. At the North and Baltic sea, offshore wind turbines preside over vast hectares of ocean. Solar panels are a regular feature on the roofs of country homes and even inner city apartments. Germany is one of only a few OECD countries to have reduced its CO2 emissions whilst still growing its GDP. Thousands of jobs have been created in energy production; for scientists, engineers and construction workers amongst others.

Source: The Economist.

I made a timeline of some key dates and milestones for the energy transition.

  • 2000: The Renewable Energies Act comes into force. This kick starts the Energy Transition, with 100+ targets set for sustainable electricity, heat and transport. The blueprint for this transition had existed since the 1980s.
  • 2002: The National Strategy for Sustainable Development is adopted.
  • 2007: The Integrated Energy and Climate Programme is launched.
  • 2009: The environmental goods and services sector of Germany's economy accounts for a not insignificant 2% of total GDP.
  • 2011: At least 370,000 Germans are employed in the expanding renewable energy sector. The decision is made to close eight nuclear power plants.
  • 2012: The German government invests 8% of GDP in renewable energy, despite the fact that the country is also battling the effects of the Global Financial Crisis.
  • 2018: The date by which it is intended that all hard coal mines are decommissioned. Coal subsidies are already being phased out.
  • 2020: 35% of Germany's power should derive from renewable energy.
  • 2022: All nuclear power plants in Germany should be decommissioned.
  • 2030: 50% of Germany's power should come from renewable energy.
  • 2050: 80% of Germany's power should be renewable.

The government's policies have not escaped criticism. Electricity prices have spiked and Germany's poor have been hit particularly hard. Thousands of people are struggling to pay their power bills with the result that their power is switched off by electricity companies. This happened to 300,000 households in a single year. According to Der Spiegel, "(electricity) costs have reached levels comparable only to the euro-zone bailouts."

"Luxury Power: Why energy will keep getting more expensive and what politics must do to stop this." Source: Der Spiegel.

Critics are also quick to point out that the policies are not always having the desired impact of reducing the country's contribution to climate change. For instance, renewable energy production increased by 10% across Germany in 2012. The same year, more C02 was released into the atmosphere than in 2011. How was this possible? The answer seems to lie in the fact that renewable energy sources are not always reliable - their outputs vary depending on the weather conditions. At crucial times in the year, coal production had to be called upon to fill in the energy shortfalls, with the result that coal production actually increased by the same percentage, 10%. Although hard coal production is decreasing, and coal subsidies are dwindling, there are still more coal power plants under construction to help meet Germany's energy needs up to 2050. Perhaps - critics pipe up helpfully - Germany has got it all wrong and the country instead needs to follow the way of the Swedes? (We Kiwis are constantly being told that we should follow the example of the Nordic countries, for instance in tackling inequality, and apparently Germany gets the same.)

Wind power station in Sweden. Source.

In any case, Germany's Energy Transition is no mean feat. It is ambitious. It is controversial. Most importantly, it will be influential. Germany is located smack bang in the middle of Europe, it's well-connected, and it's proved itself a strong and resilient economy. Other states, in Europe and beyond, will be observing with keen interest the successes and failures of this green revolution. If you're anything like me, it will give you hope that renewable energies are being touted as the way of the future. That jobs are being created and industries are being developed. That renewable energies will be better for the environment, and for us. This is a very interesting and exciting time.

Key Sources for this Post:

IEA document.
OECD documents.
Spiegel Article.
Economist Article.
RenewableEnergy.com article.
Deutschland.de YouTube clip.

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.