Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Conversation on Wealth and Inequality Continues

New Zealand is not an egalitarian nation. Whether you're concerned about our levels of inequality, or whether you couldn't give a toss, one thing you must admit is that inequality exists in New Zealand. Although New Zealand does not experience the stark contrasts of wealth and poverty as do many developing countries, we are lagging in the middle of the OECD statistics on income inequality, and we are kidding ourselves if we unashamedly declare ourselves to be egalitarian. The top 1% of adult New Zealanders are worth around $4.5 million each and hold around 20% of our nation's wealth. The bottom 50% - including a disproportionately large number of Maori and Pasifika individuals - own a measly 4% of our total wealth. Inequality is consistent across different age ranges, and males proportionately control more resources than females.

Poverty and wealth side by side in Bombay, India.
Whilst the inequality we experience in New Zealand is certainly not as severe as that experienced in countries like India, we are still not as egalitarian as we might like to believe. Photo by Viviane Moos for The Guardian.

Kiwi journalist Max Rashbrooke is concerned about these statistics. He's so concerned that he has researched and written two books on the subject, (Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis and the more recent Wealth in New Zealand) and he has spoken at public gatherings about the country to advance a public conversation on inequality. (See my earlier posts on inequality.) In the process he has got much flak, recently being called a "dangerous communist" and an "obsessive leftie" amongst other endearing descriptors. The criticism is ratcheting up - at least from the Stuff comments crowd - as Rashbrooke moves his focus from inequality in general to squarely target the wealthiest people in society. It is by focusing on the influence of the richest people, Rashbrooke maintains, that we can help reduce our levels of inequality to more acceptable levels. Cue much unhappy muttering and various outbursts of defiance from those who consider themselves to fall into this category.

Rashbrooke does not claim that inequality is bad per se. Inequality of some degree in society is inevitable and even desirable. Wage differentials give us something to work for; the possibility of improving our material existence acts as an incentive for us to take risks, work hard and make a decent contribution to society. So far so good. But it's when the gap between rich and poor gets too wide when Rashbrooke gets worried. Why so? Because wealth matters. Wealth gives us a sense of security and allows us to plan for the future. It gives us opportunities and a sense of belonging. It allows young people to go to university safely knowing that, if they can't find a suitable job after graduation, they can always call up the olds and ask for some assistance. It allows older couples to withstand the trials and tribulations that life throws at them; so when one partner has to quit work to look after aging parents, the couple's future is not permanently jeopardised and things are just a little more difficult than usual for the intervening time. Wealth is when you are not just getting by, you are flying by and there's very little that will ever set you back.

Academic Robert Wade (left) and journalist Max Rashbrooke. The pair addressed a large audience at the Royal Society of New Zealand last Thursday evening.

As well as providing individuals with more personal opportunities, wealth allows individuals to hold greater sway in society. They have more economic power and political clout: a greater ability to shape policies and to construct society in the way that they desire. Their influence is apparent in the way that we design our cities. As Rashbrooke noted, poorer suburbs are generally those areas of town where the wealthy prefer not to live and where the poor are thus forced to occupy; so if we want to think more about the impacts of urban planning on the poor, it pays (literally) to start by considering the choices of the wealthy.

It is possible that inequality would have little detrimental effect on the poor, for instance, if wealthy people used their influence to advocate for policies which would benefit the most disadvantaged in society. Yet unsurprisingly, the wealthiest people are more likely to champion causes which benefit them and others like them the most. Professor Robert Wade of the London School of Economics, speaking with Rashbrooke at a recent Wellington event, pointed to a study undertaken throughout the OECD which revealed that those OECD countries accepting the highest levels of private (not public) donations for political campaigns are the same countries which have enacted the fewest policies of social protection. Additionally, these countries (the United States foremost among them) have noticeably low voter turnouts. Conversely, some European countries sporting substantially publicly-funded political campaigns enjoy high voter turnouts and policies more targeted towards the poor.

Max Rashbrooke reckons we can - and must - tax the rich more. Source.

Turning back to the New Zealand context, Max has done some digging into how the richest people in New Zealand accumulate their wealth. 50% of wealth derives from property, 20% from business investment, 15% from financial assets and a further 15% from miscellaneous possessions. Farms are a key source of wealth for many New Zealanders. For Rashbrooke, part of the solution lies in taxation. Our current tax system does not go far enough, he believes, and he argues that gifts and inheritances ought to be taxed, and that we should implement some form of capital gains tax. Increased government revenue raised through additional taxation might allow welfare benefits to be increased to help those currently struggling to make ends meet.

In Rashbrooke's eyes, taxation is not simply stealing from the rich under another name, rather it is a way to set in notion the traditional maxim that those to whom much is given, must themselves give much back. People don't get wealthy in isolation, Rashbrooke points out, they get wealthy thanks to the common pool of resources which supports them every step along the way. Individual merit can account for so much of the wealth that a particular individual earns, so an individual is entitled to spend some of the money earned however he or she pleases, yet but the common pool of wealth must be replenished in order that future generations can also benefit from it. If you take, so too must you give. Sounds fair in principle to me. But more importantly, as a reader, what is your opinion on the matter?

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Can a nuclear disarmament activist be trusted to lead the UK?

What do you get when you combine a political party leader in a nuclear weapons state and vocal support for nuclear disarmament? The answer, as revealed over the past week in the United Kingdom, is a load of controversy, much back-stabbing, hilarious satire and a taster into the hurdles that disarmament advocates must be prepared to face in years to come.

Jeremy Corbyn, the newly-elected leader of the UK's Labour Party, recently restated his fierce opposition to nuclear weapons and the proposed renewal of Trident. Corbyn is a long-standing member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (indeed, the group backed his political campaign) and he is the current Co-Chair of the UK branch of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND). Corbyn is opposed to nuclear weapons in principle, and he vows that he would never use nuclear weapons were he the UK's Prime Minister, even for purposes of retaliation.

Jeremy Corbyn, UK Labour leader, supports nuclear weapons abolition.
Source: The Telegraph.

When asked if he would push the 'nuclear button,' Corbyn's answer was pretty unambiguous. "Would anybody press the nuclear button? Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction that take out millions of civilians."

Not only does Corbyn oppose the use of nuclear weapons, he also goes the whole hog to oppose the possession of these weapons and to sing the merits of nuclear abolition. As you can see from the quotation above, Corbyn deplores the destructive force of nuclear weapons, and he has also questioned the sense of investing millions in weapons which are meant to never be used. He sparked further controversy when he pointed out the fanciful utility of the nuclear deterrent by reference to 9/11: America's substantial supply of nuclear weapons did not deter the September 11 Al-Qaeda extremists. Corbyn wants the UK to respect its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty by not renewing Trident, and to this end he also supports the creation of an international nuclear weapons convention.

In Corbyn's words: "I am opposed to the use of nuclear weapons. I am opposed to the holding of nuclear weapons. I want to see a nuclear weapons-free world. I believe it is possible."

Push Red Button
Can the UK Prime Minister be trusted if he won't use nukes?

Voicing such discontent with the UK's nuclear weapons status quo has caused nothing short of an uproar. Defence big-wigs dismissed Corbyn's comments as idiotic. Right-wing commentators slammed his views, with Simon Heffer for The Telegraph professing to exercise restraint but still joyously branding Corbyn a "fellow traveller of revolutionaries" obsessed with a "lunatic" pacifism. In a similar vein, Leo McKinstry (formerly from Labour) described Corbyn as an "unreconstructed Trotskyite."

Indeed, Corbyn also faced opposition from those on the left, including his own Labour Party caucus. Seven members of the shadow party criticised Corbyn: the (shadow) defence secretary, home secretary (who threatened to resign), business secretary, foreign secretary, justice secretary, health secretary and a defence minister. Hilary Benn, the foreign secretary, remarked in a revealing statement that, "I think a British PM has to have that option [of using nuclear weapons] and the whole purpose of the deterrent of course is trying to deter a potential enemy because they're not sure what you're going to do and that puts them off."

David Cameron used the opportunity to preach the benefits of the UK nuclear deterrent, calling it a "vital insurance policy" which protects the nation in a "dangerous world." Corbyn's reluctance to use nuclear weapons, according to Cameron, was proof of a sinister attempt to undermine national security. Corbyn clearly could not be trusted with the most important duty of government - protecting its citizens. Comedian Mark Steel wrote a terrific spoof on this exchange, provocatively entitled "There must be something wrong with Jeremy Corbyn if he doesn't want to cause a nuclear holocaust." How could you possibly respect a man who wouldn't leap at the chance to blow up hundreds of thousands of people, Steel wondered? What an extremist! I recommend reading the whole article which is just hilarious; here's an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Next week [Corbyn] should be exposed even more, with an interviewer asking: “Would you personally, Mr Corbyn, attack Putin with a chainsaw? Answer the question, Corbyn, yes or no? If someone mocked you at a United Nations conference, would you sever his head and shriek like a hyena as you smeared his blood on your bare torso or can you not be trusted with our security? “What about crocodiles, Mr Corbyn, would you release them at the French if necessary? If you knew a wizard would you get him to turn the Iranian ambassador into a centipede, or are you too soft? This is just one more consequence of Labour choosing an extremist as a leader. It’s such a shame they didn’t select a moderate who would be prepared to press the button, such as Kim Jong-Un...

Unfortunately for Corbyn, his political comrades and unionist allies weren't as willing to come around to his viewpoint as he had hoped. Sensing the discomfort within the Labour party, Corbyn suggested they take a vote on the Trident issue. He wanted the party to discuss the issue and reach a conclusion together, however, he made no mistake that he would be trying to persuade his colleagues to back disarmament. The vote never took place, however, as the trade unionists (in particular Len McCluskey of Unite) opposed the plans and persuaded party members to reject the vote. The unionists' concern was simple: remove nuclear weapons and people will lose their jobs.

Trade union Unite fears nuclear industry workers would lose their jobs.
Image source: The Guardian.

It's a legitimate concern, especially in tough economic times. But if we want this world to become safer for everyone, we supporters of disarmament are going to have to convince the unionists that it is in their interest to join the movement for disarmament. The unionists will want answers, and we need to be able to provide them. Perhaps jobs will be created overseeing the phased disarmament of weapons, perhaps more jobs will open up in other areas of conventional security and counter-terrorism efforts. Moreover, people must be convinced that although, as with any policy change, there will be adverse impacts for some people in the short-term, the long-term gains of creating a safer, more just international system override any short-term consequences. Easy enough for me to say when I'm safe in the knowledge that I won't have to take a job in the nuclear industry anytime soon.

The Corbyn fiasco is far from over. Corbyn has so far failed to bring his supporters round to the cause of disarmament, but I suspect he won't quit trying. In the meantime, disarmament advocates would be wise to speak up and lend him some moral support. Thus far, Corbyn's comments and the response that has followed has given us some useful insights into the opinions of the British public and its political leaders. It is clear that there is a long way to go in educating people on the merits of nuclear disarmament. And campaigners must provide answers to questions which average people want to know but which campaigners - focusing on more abstract principles of peace and security - might inadvertently neglect to address: what happens to my job and how am I to live? We need a shift in mindset, but it is tremendously encouraging that Corbyn is not disguising his support for disarmament and that he is sticking to his guns. And what a fantastic way to get people in the United Kingdom and abroad thinking critically about the nuclear weapons elephant in the room.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Climate change welcomes you to the age of mass migration

It's worse than you think read her first powerpoint slide. Senior Lecturer Catherine Iorns did not shy away from talking about the bleak repercussions of climate change at an Amnesty International speaker event yesterday evening at law school on environmental refugees. An expert on environmental law, Iorns addressed the full lecture theatre of students and members of the public on the ramifications of some significant environmental issues facing us today. She pinpointed loss of net biomass (for instance, a decline in honeybee numbers), habitat destruction (deforestation, desertification and the creation of dead zones around many river mouths), and loss of biodiversity (like the reduction in salt-water fish species due to overfishing.) In my last blog I noted that Pope Francis recently urged UN officials to respect the ethical limits of the natural world, and Iorns reiterated this viewpoint (only this time in scientific lingo!) to lament that we are exceeding our biocapity in many important respects, and that we need to minimise our ecological footprint.

Where do you go when your home is disappearing? Photo source.

Catherine was clear that anthropogenic climate change is happening right now. She pointed to the loss of ice caps leading to sea level rises and an increase in extreme weather events like flooding and droughts sparked by warmer air and sea temperatures. Climate change means that precious water supplies are dwindling in many densely-populated areas, and people are being forced to relocate. Often this relocation occurs internally, so people are not officially classed as climate change 'refugees.' A striking example is the exodus from Papua New Guinea's Carteret Islands which were condemned by rising sea levels: those leaving the islands were not classed as refugees since they were able to be accommodated internally. However, this won't always be the case for those relocating. Moreover, around the world, people forced to leave their homes aren't necessarily going to calmly adapt to changes and continue their lives, especially not if they're out of work and starving, and Iorns suggested that those people angry with their lot might be more inclined to join extremist groups such as ISIL. Indeed, in outlining the risks of climate change as identified in 2014 by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the UN's Christina Figueres noted that "climate change increases the risk of armed conflict around the world because it worsens poverty and economic shocks." (Read the press release here.) So in response to a remark I heard exchanged between two students in the law school common room after the event - "do you think we'll see climate wars in the future?" the answer is: "quite possibly."

A depleted river in drought-struck California. Photo source.

In fact, climate wars may to some extent already be playing out - at least, current conflicts may have been exacerbated by climate change. Iorns made a brief comment on the involvement of prolonged drought in the 2011 Syrian uprising, but unfortunately she didn't tease out this idea. Turning to the web, I see that a paper authored by Colin Kelley and his team at the University of California in Santa Barbara suggests that the 2006-2010 drought affecting Syria and neighbouring countries was a contributing factor in the civil unrest, and furthermore, that this drought is likely to have been exacerbated by human-induced climate change. The paper has gone viral on the web as far as academic research can go viral - it has been cited in a host of news outlets including The Guardian and TIME. This webpage features a useful interview with Kelley. Kelley's research essentially proposes that the longest drought on record in Syria, coupled with ineffective governance under al-Assad and unchecked population growth, led to a collapse in agriculture in the northeastern parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of rural families moved to poor areas around the cities and faced unemployment and poverty. It didn't take much to encourage people to direct their anger toward the failing government and speed the uprising. In addition, the drought in question seems to be part of a longer-term trend of rising temperatures in the area. So if you were to accept this argument, I would suggest that the Syrian refugees arriving in Wellington next January might well be 'climate change refugees' if the term is employed in a very broad sense.

The Paris climate is coming up this December.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, former PM and current lecturer at Victoria University's Law Faculty, was next to take the floor. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the slow international response to climate change. People knew about climate change in the 80s, he said, people knew that Pacific atolls might be destroyed unless greenhouse gas emissions were drastically reduced. Nevertheless, Palmer rued, "virtually no progress has been made" in the global arena since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, despite all the evidence and the near unanimity of scientific research. For Palmer, what is desperately needed is a new legally-binding, enforceable international instrument which would commit governments to wide-reaching actions. (The same as what is needed for nuclear weapons elimination!) This aim is hindered by the realities of the current political system - international law is defective, changes are costly to implement, and governments prioritise staying in power over advocating for long-term improvements. The struggle will not cease when such a legally-binding instrument is negotiated, as it must then be ratified by nation states and incorporated into domestic policy-making. Palmer described the Paris climate talks this December as "the last chance salon," yet feared that it was highly unlikely that the talks would result in sufficient progress. If that's the case, it certainly is worse than we think! Given that we can't seem to mitigate our emissions fast enough, the flip-side for Palmer was a need for mankind to adapt to a transforming environment. Palmer didn't flesh out this idea, but I took this to include investigating savvy technological developments.

It's up to us to protect our environment. Image source.

Whatever route is taken to solve these wide-reaching problems, Palmer was clear that ordinary people need to know what's going on. We must fully appreciate the science of climate change and its social and political ramifications. But not only this; people also need to act. In the tradition of Edmund Burke, Palmer believed it a "tragedy" that so many people know so much about environmental destruction, yet do so little. Something that we New Zealanders can take particular interest in, he opined, is assisting our Pacific Island neighbours. Pacific Islanders have contributed much to our way of life and the way to repay them is hardly to stand by and watch as their islands disappear and they are forced out of their homelands. The first step on the way to helping our neighbours (quite literally) is for the NZ government to make a genuine offer of emissions reductions in December.

Palmer concluded by quoting Pope Francis. (Again, see my previous post on the Pope and climate change.) Palmer was clear that he is not of a religious background, but on this topic, he laughed, "I think [the Pope's] got it quite right!"

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Pope urges us to uphold the letter and spirit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty

As you might have noticed, I've been toning down my blogging over the past few weeks in the (optimistic) preparation for end-of-year exams. So much has happened which I would love to have captured on this blog but which alas I have let pass. The Man Who Saved the World, which I wrote about in my last post, was screened at Parliament to an appreciative audience. Internationally-renowned actress Maxi Blaha performed a play about the personal life and politics of Bertha von Suttner - the first female Nobel Peace Price Laureate and author of the famous book "Lay Down Your Arms." The same day, a successful United Nations Association of New Zealand event on building a community of peace attracted individuals advocating peace from different organisations in Wellington and further afield.

Last Friday, Pope Francis addressed the UN General Assembly on his United States tour to much acclaim, and it's the Pope's speech which I would like to refer to today. The fourth Pope to speak at the UN, Pope Francis spoke rarely of God and Jesus (God rates one mention and Jesus' name never crossed the Pope's lips the entire speech), but frequently spoke of UN-endorsed concepts such as justice, human rights and the rule of law. Speaking in the lead up to the Paris summit on climate change this December, Pope Francis highlighted the need to accord the environment respect and to work for its preservation. According to the Pope, humans should not view themselves in isolation from nature, since humans in fact live "in communion" with the environment, since we were created alongside plants, animals and all life forms by God (correction - by "our Creator.") We should not abuse or destroy the environment, instead, we should prudently observe its "ethical limits."

Ban Ki-Moon shows Pope Francis around the United Nations.

Pope Francis slammed the global arms trade and the nuclear weapons industry. He viewed war as an affront to the biblical narrative, as a "negation of all rights" and a "dramatic assault on the environment." War, he said, is all odds with the UN Charter which emphasises the peaceful resolution of disputes and amicable interstate relations. The Pope especially condemned "weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear weapons," going on to say that, "an ethics and a law based on the threat of mutual destruction - and possibly the destruction of all mankind - are self-contradictory and an affront to the entire framework of the UN, which would end up as 'nations united by fear and distrust.'" A pretty solid rebuke of the nuclear peace theory! Moreover, the Pope is committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons, which he has already come out in support of, restating that, "there is urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, in full application of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, in letter and in spirit, with the goal of a complete prohibition of these weapons."

It's great to hear any person declare themselves committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons, but fantastic when that person is as celebrated as the Pope, a man who is quite accustomed to having millions turn out to hear his words, having babies thrust up to him to bless and having fully-grown men sobbing unashamedly at his feet. Photographer Dave Yoder was recently granted six months' permission to accompany the Pope on his travels, and he produced some stunning photographs for the National Geographic. If you can get past the triumphant yellow advertising for Shell splattered across Nat Geo articles these days, it is well worth a look. Who knows what the Pope would have to say about this unfortunate choice of corporate sponsor - at any rate the Pope is contemptuous of all those who, ruled by greed and a thirst for power, exploit the environment for their own ends. Enough said. Pope Francis also has an aversion to "solemn commitments" and falling into a "declarationist nominalism" - so I guess I better quit the procrastination and get back to the books.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Nuclear near misses and one man who saved our skins

I want to tell you a story about Stanislav Petrov.
- Who?
Stanislav Petrov. Formerly lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov.
- Never heard of the bloke.
Well he's a Russian as you'd suspect, in his late seventies, a bit of a recluse. He lost his wife to cancer years ago and never fully recovered.
- Why's he famous?
He saved the world apparently.
- Saved the world?
Yeah. That's what they call him: the man who saved the world.
- How'd he do that?
He stopped a nuclear war. He was a duty officer at a Soviet early warning centre in the 80s, and he chose not to report what looked like a full-scale nuclear attack from the United States. If he'd reported it, the Soviets would probably have retaliated.
- And we'd have had a nuclear war?
That's what they say. He prevented World War Three.

Stanislav Petrov, old enough to be your grandfather, and looking slightly bemused by all the attention. "I am not a hero. I was simply in the right place at the right time."

If you're into thrillers, documentaries or historical dramas, and especially if you'll into all three, Peter Anthony's The Man Who Saved the World is the film for you. The film follows Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov's reluctant rise from obscurity to fame following his famous decision which has been credited with averting a nuclear crisis during the Cold War. In 1983, Stanislav and his command team at an early warning centre detected a nuclear missile fast approaching the USSR. Minutes later, another missile was detected, then another, until the duty team believed around six or seven missiles in all were heading towards them. Instead of reporting the incident, Stanislav disobeyed military protocol and bravely declared the occurrence to be nothing but a false alarm. Stanislav later insisted that he had never wanted to start a war. The whole incident turned out to be nothing but a mysterious computer failure which has never been properly resolved.

The film chronicles Stanislav's life in the military as well as his struggle to comprehend the past as he reaches old age. Stanislav's life has been marked by sadness; as a young man he was forced into the military, his relationship with his family deteriorated over time and he turned to alcohol after the death of his wife. When a female Russian translator is tasked with assisting Stanislav on a speaking tour to the United States, she wonders how to cope with this grumbling, explosive old man with a marked distrust of journalists and a resistance to being thrust into the limelight. Over time, however, Stanislav warms to the young woman and through the translator, the viewer comes to understand how Stanislav's experience of the military has contributed to his disillusionment.

Stanislav battles to make sense of a changing world on his visit to the States - the country which was formerly an enemy to his homeland. (Photo from The Guardian.)

Along with Stanislav and his translator, viewers meet celebrities like Matt Damon and Kevin Costner and go on a tiki tour of some major nuclear landmarks, like the site of the first nuclear test, Trinity, in New Mexico. The film throws some light on the futility of the nuclear weapons industry and the precariousness of an international system reliant on the doctrine of nuclear security. However, I was disappointed that the film did not take its narration to the next level to comment on the status of the world's nuclear arsenals today, given that thousands of nuclear weapons still remain on high alert and Russia and the United States still perceive each other as adversaries. The film could have acted as a warning to us all that a supposed nuclear peace is not sustainable, and it could have tried to propel people into action, but at best it might have left viewers vaguely aware that problems remain today, but resigned to believing, like Stanislav, that a future nuclear war is inevitable. (Which it doesn't have to be if we act and oppose nuclear weapons!)

What it lacked in critical analysis, the film just about made up for in its simple yet memorable character interactions. More than anything, The Man Who Saved The World is a reflection on the power of individual morality: it is thanks to his translator's insistence on the importance of family that Stanislav is able to reconcile himself with his aged mother, and it is thanks to the strength of Stanislav's conscience that the world was not plunged into nuclear war in the 80s. People of all nations need to be educated about the dangers of nuclear weapons because at the end of the day, it is individual men and women who are complicit in the manufacture and maintenance of these weapons. If more men and women took a lead from Stanislav, and refused to play their part in this nuclear machine of death, we could instead build a safer, more humane world to inspire pride in us all.

The Man Who Saved The World will be screened at Parliament, in the Beehive Theatrette, next Tuesday 22nd September, 6-8pm. Members of the public are welcome (and encouraged!) to come along, provided they give their details to security first.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

600 Syrians get a new lease on life in Aotearoa New Zealand

I was thrilled to hear that the government has ceded to public pressure and will resettle an emergency intake of 600 Syrian men (yes Winston) women and children. Immigration New Zealand advised the government that this would come at an immediate cost of $49 million, and respected economist Shamubeel Eaqub has noted that a good resettlement process means that refugees have a positive net impact on our economy. The government has also committed $4.5 million in humanitarian aid to assist some of the four million refugees who have fled Syria. This is nowhere near as much support as we can give, and it pales in comparison with the contributions of other UN member states*, (don't forget that we're also a non-permanent member on the Security Council at the moment) but it is a promising start. *Countries doing far more than us include Germany, Canada, and even Australia, especially in light of Abbott's recent commitment to resettle 12,000 more refugees.

Syrian boy in a refugee camp: CNN photo.

We hear lots of terrible stories of the enormous suffering refugees-background New Zealanders have endured at the Wellington Community Law Centre (which runs immigration law drop-in clinics). So often we hear client stories about losing family members to conflict, suffering violence and abuse, and spending years in desperate situations in refugee camps. Sitting at a small desk in front of a person who tells you quite calmly that all their brothers and sisters are dead to war is at once moving and profoundly unsettling. Many refugees who make it to New Zealand would love for other family members still living in war-torn countries to come and join them in safety, and it is saddening that in the vast majority of cases, due to strict government policies and other practicalities, family reunification will be impossible. So daughters are isolated from their aged mothers stuck in Iraq, and uncles rue that their nieces (whose husbands have been killed) are left widowed in compromising situations in Afghanistan. Even though former refugees sorely miss their families overseas, they are so grateful to be living in the safe haven of New Zealand, and they are determined to make a success of their lives. It is amazing to imagine - from January next year - that there will be new Syrian families arriving in New Zealand who would have come through so much, but who will now be able to start over again in our beautiful country. Let's make them truly welcomed.

Vigils to increase the quota are being held in main centres tonight.

The government's softening of its stance is testimony to the power of communities calling for change. The advocacy of groups such as Amnesty International and Doing Our Bit has been instrumental in bringing the need for our country to play its part in the refugee crisis into the limelight. There have been all manner of strategy meetings, speaker events, actions and public awareness campaigns leading up to this point. Amnesty centred its 2015 Freedom Challenge on the refugee crisis, so school and university students around the country have been reaching out to more people on the issue. Doing Out Bit spokesperson Murdoch Stephens has given a great number of interviews on the subject. We also have our media outlets to thank: various media organisations have provided strong coverage of this issue, especially in recent weeks, and this was sparked by individuals who made the choice to prioritise sharing refugee stories. Thanks to Mike Wesley-Smith amongst others!

Parliamentarians, mayors (like Wellington's own Celia Wade-Brown) and churches have also got on board. Over the past week, Anglican and Catholic parishes in New Zealand put a call for support out to parishioners and pledged to support 40 refugee families (about 160 individuals) in Wellington alone. What a fitting occasion for a person of faith to put a desire to help your neighbour and look out for the poor and vulnerable into action! My hope is that the government doesn't take advantage of these generous offers by ruling against significant funding increases to refugee support services. Though its great that New Zealanders (in church congregations or small towns) are offering their homes and other support to new families, the response to the new refugee intake needs to be coordinated so that we can best support families in need. Refugees make a long-term contribution to our societies, but they do have particular needs (and wouldn't you if you left a civil war, left mostly everyone you know behind and had to start anew on the other side of the world!?) and they require specialised support especially at the beginning of their resettlement. The Red Cross Refugee Services does a great job overseeing resettlement, as do other agencies, and it is here where we need to focus our energy. We need to support a system which is functioning well and to do this properly, the system needs to be adequately funded.

Red Cross Refugee Services photo.

I also hope that, now that the government has offered some initial emergency support to refugees, the issue will not go on the back burner, but rather that this will be the start of a wider response. Prime Minister John Key has quipped that our resettlement system will now be "stretched", and Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse reportedly stated that the higher our refugee quota, the lower our flexibility to take in new arrivals. This might sound a little less like an excuse if we had been rather more enthusiastic about actually accepting an emergency intake of refugees to begin with. Amnesty International, Doing Our Bit and the New Zealand Red Cross (which as mentioned coordinates refugee resettlement, so certainly if the Red Cross is behind this it suggests we can indeed accommodate more refugees) are all requesting the government to increase the refugee quota for good.

The numbers can get a little confusing**, especially when the government focuses on some figures and NGOs highlight others. But basically New Zealand is the only country with a central resettlement centre: at Mangere, refugees benefit from medical attention, English classes and trauma support for an initial six weeks. New Zealand takes about 1,100 refugees per year when you account for the 750 quota UNHCR refugees, along with refugees who come to New Zealand under the Refugee Family Reunification strategy and small numbers of asylum seekers. We are one of only 26 countries to resettle UNHCR refugees, so this ranks us 6/7th in the world for resettling refugees per capita. However, this ranking does not account for the vast numbers of refugees who arrive as asylum seekers in many countries. Once you take asylum seekers into account, New Zealand plummets down to 90th in the world for refugees resettled per capita. Given that we are a relatively wealthy country and that our refugee quota has not increased over the past 30 years, even as our population has increased by about 40%, groups like Amnesty International and Doing Our Bit have been calling for the quota to be doubled. After the recent announcements, their calls are only strengthening. The refugee quota will be reviewed next year.
** Have a look at this Action Station FAQ page for more useful clarification.

Refugees are offered access to health care, trauma counselling, education, cultural introduction, employment guidance.
Photo by Radio NZ's Mohammed Hassan.

So what can you do??

  • Tonight! If you're in Wellington, come and support a candlelit vigil outside Parliament at 6pm. (Outside the War Memorial in Auckland.) Amnesty is lighting candles for all those lives we can save if we extend our Kiwi hospitality to more refugees.
  • Join Amnesty in writing to the Minister of Immigration Michael Woodhouse requesting that more refugees are resettled in New Zealand.
  • Donate kitchen items, bedding and bikes to the New Zealand Red Cross. These will be passed on to new refugee families.
  • Volunteer with Refugee Services to help a new family integrate into the community: a super rewarding volunteer activity.
  • If you are an employer, offer jobs and mentoring to refugees: other employers avow that these people are some of the most hard-working and genuine employees you can find.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Felt like writing about killer robots

When you start getting interested in nuclear disarmament, you quickly realise that the issue cannot be viewed in isolation from other disarmament campaigns. The humanitarian movement for nuclear disarmament draws its strategy and values directly from past disarmament campaigns, and it takes its place alongside other weapons campaigns currently working to curb the brute excesses of war. For me, after nuclear weapons, I became interested in landmines and cluster munitions, (it sounds odd writing that!) since these successful campaigns inform the work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Next it made sense to learn about chemical and biological weapons, as these influenced the Nuclear Weapons Convention and are the other two weapons of mass destruction. The Arms Trade Treaty is another recent success; although not a disarmament treaty, the ATT regulates the trade in conventional weapons (e.g. weapons should be not sold to those likely to commit human rights abuses). Then there’s the killer robots campaign: a (scarily real) contemporary campaign which aims to pre-emptively prohibit the use and stymie the development of fully autonomous weapons. This last campaign featured in a panel discussion held yesterday at Saint Andrew’s on the Terrace.

The panel of Marnie Lloyd (New Zealand Red Cross), Thomas Nash (Article 36 United Kingdom) and Edwina Hughes (Peace Movement Aotearoa New Zealand) tackled the big stuff: nuclear weapons, explosive devices and killer robots. The subject matter was vast and the questions afterwards further expanded the ambit of the conversation. Although this proved challenging at times, I nevertheless found the discussion illuminating and its ethical questions profoundly unsettling.

So what’s the deal with explosive weapons?

“Explosive weapons” is a broad term which can refer to weapons like bombs, mortars, landmines and improvised explosive devices – basically anything that can be detonated over towns and cities. Marnie explained that the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) is concerned that these weapons disproportionately impact civilians. Explosions can destroy schools and hospitals and take the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children. Destroying civilian infrastructure has ripple effects across a nation’s population. For instance, if a power plant is destroyed, hospitals cannot function, water supplies cannot be activated, and civilians may become internally displaced. This creates a humanitarian nightmare. It is possible to bring explosive weapons into compliance with international humanitarian law; the problem for the ICRC is not the weapons themselves, but the way these weapons are being used. (Reminiscent of the "it's not the drinking..." ads!)

The ICRC has taken a number of affirmative actions over the last five years, such as releasing written statements and resolutions calling on states to protect civilians, and facilitating a meeting of state representatives and independent experts to share information on the topic.

According to Thomas, people around the world have been strangely ambivalent towards the massive loss of civilian life in countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan in recent years. In his words, there has been a “moral outrage gap.” In fact, it is unacceptable that it is seen as inevitable that whole towns should be bombarded to satisfy a purported military aim.

The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) which Thomas coordinates has the support of organisations such as Save the Children, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The UN Secretary-General has voiced his support of the goal. INEW wants states to acknowledge the problem, adopt more transparent measures in discussing existing national policies and endorse a political statement laying out a reasonable position on the issue.

What about killer robots?

This campaign is in its infancy in disarmament terms. Edwina told us that the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was established in 2013, following the precedent of the campaign to ban blinding lasers (these weapons were banned when the technology was still being developed, as they were considered too ghastly to ever use.) Killer robots, or fully autonomous weapons, are discussed in forums such as the Convention on Certain Convention Weapons (CCW: for once the acronym is preferable to the clunky full name!) and the UN Human Rights Council. For Edwina, the idea of robots taking over the command from humans in conflict undermines the whole idea of international humanitarian law, since IHL presupposes that humans make decisions about the fate of other human beings before them. Edwina also expressed her discontent with the New Zealand government’s stance on both killer robots (Mary Wareham, a New Zealander working for Human Rights Watch echoes this sentiment) and nuclear weapons. Edwina is concerned that the government has stepped away from the helm to take a backseat on these two disarmament issues.

Now to digress… When people talk about killer robots, they invariably make reference to sci-fi films like Terminator. I was a booklover long before I became a cinephile, and for years my films of choice were foreign languages and documentaries… so my affinity with sci-fi blockbusters is sadly lacking. But if it counts, I have recently seen Her and Ex Machina, and what I took away from these films (unfortunately) was that if you want to make big bucks with an AI film, you should ensure to centre your plot around the eternal themes of sex and violence. In both movies, hapless male characters fall in love with robots / operating systems, or at least entertain fancies of copulating with them. (What is this rumour about women being emotional and irrational by the way?) In Her, operating system Samantha fools Theodore into believing she only cares for him, whilst systematically manipulating hundreds of other humans. In Ex Machina, it is only a matter of time before robot Ava (complete with seductive husky voice) learns of her inevitable dismantlement and plans to escape, on the way seeking revenge on programmer Nathan who had locked her up. However much these films may promise to expand our wary minds with surprising themes, they invariable fall back on the old winners of sex and violence.

Which might arguably be fine for entertainment value if it weren’t for the realisation that this is how things actually play out. (Let’s leave the ‘does art mimic, or create, reality?’ discussion for another time…) What’s leading the worldwide robotics and AI movement? The noble desire to replace humans with machines in dangerous occupations like underground mining? Um maybe, but probably not. My research method here is totally lacking in rigour, but do a quick search of warbots and sexbots on the internet and you’ll quickly get the idea that, sad as it might be, sex and violence are paving the way yet again in this technological development. (See “Sex, Bombs and Burgers” in my blog archives for more on this subject.)

So when we think about the future of robotics, it is saddening yet hardly surprising that a large part of human energy is being directed towards creating robots (warbots) for the battlefield. The idea is that fully autonomous machines might take over the controls from humans, that is to say, no human intervention would be needed once the warbots were programmed to undertake a euphemistically-termed ‘mission.’ We already see examples of partly autonomous weapons being used to wage war; drones used by the military in Pakistan and directed by people in the US are a prime example. The development of warbots is intrinsically linked to the development of other, nominally peaceful uses of technology. It is no coincidence that warbots are developing at the same time as driverless cars. Is it mere coincidence that drone targeting ability is improving at the same time as Facebook gets smarter recognising our friends in tagged photos?

The interconnection of technology and warfare presents peace campaigners and supporters of international humanitarian law with a challenge. The sheer monolithic size (in terms of political power, finances and reach) of the techno-weapons industry makes it enormously difficult to defeat (to employ a military term); however, given that everyday technologies may be linked to the weapons industry, there may be creative ways to engage the general public on these issues. If you could (hypothetically) prove a connection between a certain brand of car and investment in autonomous weapons, why not create a campaign urging public citizens to never buy this particular model and to take to social media to shame the manufacturers?

Finally… a note on the nuclear weapons front!

A couple of weeks back, I travelled to Auckland to speak about the humanitarian movement for nuclear disarmament at two events. The first was a Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Pacific Media Centre speaker event, the second the Peace Foundation’s annual schools’ Peace Symposium. It was great to address two different audiences on a topic which has become immensely absorbing for me. The schools’ event in particular was truly inspiring – it was great to hear from the students (from a bunch of different Auckland high schools) about how peace is relevant to their lives, for instance, in terms of bullying at school and the activism they are involved in with Amnesty groups. It was a day of presentations (by students and invited guests like me), peppered with fun activities like a flash mob and some superb dancing by the MC Isaac when everyone starting clapping along and cheering. If nuclear disarmament ever seems like an overwhelming goal, I always take myself back to the basics and remember that by promoting the message of peace and global security, there are so many other cool spin-offs that you might not expect. And this applies not just to nuclear weapons, but to a host of other disarmament campaigns. Progress towards peace and security is relevant to all of us in our own personal lives as well as in our active political ones. And on that note I will finish for now.

Friday, 7 August 2015

70 Years on from Nuclear Devastation

This week is a time to remember the tragedies of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, with Hiroshima Day falling on the 6th August and Nagasaki day three days later on the 9th. 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese atomic bombings, and in New Zealand and around the world, people have been gathering to commemorate the bomb drops and to reflect on peace and war. There have been a number of initiatives in our Wellington community which I want to write about today. Firstly though, to emphasise the significance of this event, I want to include an excerpt from the book "Warrior Without Weapons" by Dr. Marcel Junod. Marcel was an ICRC delegate from Switzerland in 1945 when he visited Hiroshima with a foreign investigation commission a few weeks after the bombings.

A Japanese soldier in Hiroshima after the bombings. (

Marcel was able to look at some of the makeshift hospitals in the city centre. He writes,

These 'hospitals' had been set up on the outskirts of town in the rare buildings which had escaped complete destruction and were regarded as 'less damaged.' Even if there was no roof and only the walls standing, scores and sometimes even hundreds of wounded had been carried there. There were no beds, no water, no medical supplies and no proper medical attention... One could go on indefinitely describing the horror of it all; the thousands of helpless, suffering bodies stretched out on the ground; the thousands of swollen charred faces; the ulcerated backs; the suppurating arms raised up in order to avoid contact with any covering.

Each of those human beings represented an infinity of suffering. Those disfigured masks would always retain the horror of what they had witnessed. What must they have been thinking when they saw the neat American uniforms passing through their ranks?

Drawing by a Hiroshima survivor. Many burn victims ran to the water, yet this could not save them. From "Unforgettable Fire." (Skipschiel blog.)

At a speaker event yesterday, Matthew O'Meagher, an academic at Victoria University, spoke about the history of resistance to nuclear weapons in New Zealand. He explained that the Hiroshima bombings affected people in New Zealand and abroad in a range of ways. Some of the scientists who had been involved in designing nuclear weapons through the Manhattan project were shocked that their technology had been used to such lethal effect. Others were excited and proud. In New Zealand, some people were relieved that (apparently) WWII might finally end. Others were concerned that now such a dangerous weapon had been unveiled, warfare would never be the same. But in the years to follow, the Hiroshima event mostly blurred into the background of other wartime atrocities - of which there were so many. New Zealanders got on with rebuilding their lives and reflecting on (or trying to forget) how the war had impacted them personally.

Certainly on a global scale (I would add) there was a lack of critical analysis about the decision to drop the bombs. Often when people talk about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, they assume it was these actions which ended World War Two. (We are taught this line in school.) This is but one interpretation of history. It is a persuasive one, but it also the official one which the US government in particular would like us to believe, and it may not be a complete interpretation. There were alternatives to ending the war in the Pacific, such as threatening a bomb drop, demonstrating a bomb to the Japanese, extending diplomatic dialogues. The actual motives of the US government may have centred more on demonstrating American power to the rest of the world, in particular the Soviet Union, rather than punishing Japan.

Me and Tim Wright in front of children's artworks for peace at the public library.

What's been happening in Wellington?

I'm proud to say that Wellington has hosted a number of successful events for Hiroshima and Nagasaki Days. (Apologies in advance for missing events, these are just ones that I've heard about and participated in.) To start with, Tim Wright, the Asia-Pacific Director of ICAN: the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, has been touring New Zealand to raise awareness of the global movement for nuclear disarmament. Peace campaigners such as Robin Halliday and Laurie Ross organised a busy schedule for Tim, which involved Tim meeting with government officials, giving interviews and speaking to university students. On Monday evening Tim spoke to around thirty Victoria University students; explaining to us why the goal of disarmament is necessary and feasible. The students kept Tim on his toes with some good questions. Straight after, Tim headed to Radio New Zealand where he was interviewed by Bryan Crump for twenty minutes. I tagged along and watched through the glass of the adjoining studio (I'd imagined there would be just one main studio, but it turns out there are about five!) I reckon Tim responded really well to the questions, but you can decide for yourself by checking out the link above.

Tim is not the only one who has been giving speeches on the topic. As I mentioned before, Matthew O'Meagher, who has a background in History, spoke to students on Thursday evening about New Zealand's nuclear-free history. He took the audience on a tour through the days of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, French testing and the Rainbow Warrior, up until the current time when he believes attention is captured more by climate change than by the nuclear threat. Matthew punctuated his presentation with a number of video clips and images. I'm always learning more about the nuclear issue (which is so multi-faceted and absorbing!) and I learnt in Matthew's talk that a 'Miss Atomic' beauty pageant was run in Las Vegas in the 50s to amplify support for nuclear projects. Crazy!

The winner of the "Miss Atomic Pageant." (

Two commemorative events took place back-to-back on Sunday. The first was a relatively formal ceremony by the Peace Flame in the Botanical Gardens at which a number of local dignitaries, school students and others gave short speeches. Speakers included Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, the Brazilian Ambassador H.E. Mr. Eduardo Gradilone, the Japanese Ambassador H.E. Mr Toshihisa Takata and MP Grant Robertson (for Hon. Phil Goff who attended the ceremony in Hiroshima itself along with National MP Shane Reti.) I spoke about my impressions of the NPT Review Conference - how it revealed to me how urgent the global situation is, but yet how dedicated the peace campaigners are to making progress on disarmament. Common themes in the speeches included a recognition that the bombings caused horrendous suffering for the people of Japan (suffering which continues to this day for survivors and also affects second- and third-generation Japanese) and that this must never happen again. Anger was expressed at the international situation by which some states refuse to make significant progress towards disarmament in spite of legal obligations.

Students Betty and Nina of Samuel Marsden read messages from the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the Peace Flame in the Botanical Gardens.

The Japanese Ambassador shared a moving story about one of his most popular primary school teachers, who was a very caring woman who also happened to be a Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivor.) The students respected her greatly, but they were concerned to see that the bomb had made her very unwell; meaning that she tired easily and was frequently admitted to hospital. The teacher died in her 60s. Grant Robertson also started by talking about his teacher; in the 80s one of his teachers allowed students to investigate topics of their own choosing and this gave Grant an opportunity to explore the topical issue of nuclear weapons. The films "The Day After" and "Threads" had a significant emotional impact on him. School students from Hutts College spoke of the important influence of individuals, drawing on legendary figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior. Some positive recent developments mentioned included that: 114 states (excluding New Zealand) have now signed the humanitarian pledge, Wellington was involved in the recent global wave to symbolise the relinquishing of nuclear weapons and a parliamentary motion by Hon. Phil Goff was just passed (30 July) marking the bombings and urging states to follow up their obligations on nuclear disarmament.

Hon PHIL GOFF : I move, That this House, on the 70th anniversary of the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, calls on the nuclear weapon States to replace ongoing expenditure of more than $100 billion a year on their nuclear weapons arsenals with a programme to eliminate nuclear weapons, in accord with their obligations under article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Tim Wright, Mayor Celia Wade-Brown and one of the prize-winning student artists on Sunday's event at the town library.

Shortly after this commemoration, another event kicked off at the town library. Organised by the Mayor's Office and Soka Gakki International, the event comprised of a children's art exhibition on peace, complete with a youth orchestra, speeches by a school student, the Mayor and Tim Wright, and commentary by an enthusiastic young MC. Celia Wade-Brown mentioned that Wellington is officially a nuclear-weapons-free zone. The decision was controversial when it was first adopted in 1982, but it has been accepted over time and in 2012 a ceremony celebrated 30 years of being a peaceful city. There are all sorts of monuments for peace around Wellington, like ones on the top of Mount Victoria or in the Botanical Gardens - you can look up information about the Wellington Peace Walk to find them all. The library event was extremely successful, with hundreds of children getting really engaged in the project and proudly bringing their parents and grandparents along to show off their artworks. The library was humming with conversation.

Finally, there was an event for Red Cross staff on Monday run by Marnie Lloyd, Legal and Policy Manager. The purpose was to keep staff informed about the relationship between international humanitarian law and nuclear disarmament. New Red Cross campaign materials for the 70th anniversary of the bombings were released. You can fold a paper crane in a gesture of peace and take a photo of yourself holding the crane to upload to social media, use #hiroshima70. The new posters look very sleek and there are also booklets with instructions on how to fold the cranes (useful for people like me!) Have a look at these materials on the Red Cross website here.

As you can see, there has been lots happening on the peace scene this week in Wellington. There are also lots of opinion articles to read on the web, but I've run out of space to mention them here. Hopefully these events and articles have inspired positive discussion. I'm going to finish with a few more images from the Sunday events at the Peace Flame and in the Public Library.

Rod Alley, former political scientist at Victoria University, speaks on Sunday.

The youth orchestra at the public library.

One of my favourite artworks, by Georgia Hewat.