Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Hope We Have - Increasing our Refugee Quota

Immigration Minister Hon. Michael Woodhouse's speech at yesterday's parliamentary event for World Refugee Day was carefully worded and conservative. Addressing the audience of Ambassadors, Members of Parliament and staff from government and non-government agencies, Woodhouse expressed the view that the government is "on the right track" with its refugee resettlement programme. [Read his speech here.] He praised the work of government and non-government agencies in helping refugees - quota refugees, asylum seekers and refugee family support individuals - settle into New Zealand life. He spoke of the success of the 2013-launched "New Zealand Refugee Resettlement Strategy" [view it here] which aims to improve the refugee experience in five key areas: housing, education, participation, health and well being, and self-sufficiency. (Key outcomes of the strategy include worthy goals such as enabling more refugee children to gain NCEA Level Two and ensuring adults increase their competence in the English language.)

The world's largest refugee camp: Dadaab Camp in Kenya.

After emphasising the progress that the government has made, Woodhouse turned to proposals to raise the existing UNHCR mandated quota. He argued that, "some of the criticism about the current numbers has been misplaced." He wanted New Zealanders to know that in addition to our quota 750 refugees (+/- 10%), we also welcome around 300 people each year under the Refugee Family Support Category. (The Refugee Family Support Category policy allows refugees already resettled in New Zealand who meet specific criteria to apply to bring relatives to New Zealand. Ideally, the policy should benefit the refugee who enjoys having family members here, and the government, which saves money on social services as the refugee now has personal support.) Woodhouse also noted that New Zealand is "one of only around 26 countries which resettles refugees referred by the UNHCR."

Government agencies and NGOs united to mark World Refugee Day. It is encouraging to see cross-sector collaboration. This photo is from Refugees as Survivors.

Michael Woodhouse gave few indications in his parliamentary speech that the government might be willing to increase the refugee quota. He did stress though that this decision is still in the making, as the government will pronounce on the next three-year refugee quota programme early next year, "after considering all relevant factors." However, Woodhouse was far more candid in an interview the same morning with Susie Ferguson of Radio New Zealand. Woodhouse started off by saying that he didn't think the quota decision is "a case of either or" (presumably meaning either quality or quantity) and when pressed by Ferguson he wound up conceding that it is "quite possible" that the government would increase the quota. This is the interaction as I transcribed it, adding emphasis. [Listen for yourself here.]

Ferguson: But if it's not 'either or,' does that mean that seeing as... you saying you've done a much better job in the last few years, that means you are in a position now to actually up those numbers?

Woodhouse: Well that's certainly the hope that we have. Now I need... we've had this refugee resettlement strategy in place for the past two years now. I'm interested in seeing progress in terms of the quality of the settlement outcomes and if it's necessary - if it's, ah, true - that we're able to settle the 750 and their associated family reunification refugees better and more effectively, it is quite possible that we could increase the number. But as I say, the government has an open mind on that and we'll be taking advice early next year.

Woodhouse seems to be taking a substantially different tact in this interview than in his speech at Parliament. Under pressure from Ferguson (and it's not difficult to tell where Ferguson's loyalties lie!) did Woodhouse inadvertently overstep the mark and promise more than he intended? Or was this all part of the government's strategy? It is important to note that the government has certainly not committed to increasing the refugee quota, yet having an "open mind" and retaining a "hope" to increase it seems much more proactive than refusing to entertain the possibility of an increase.

Michael Woodhouse says it is "quite possible" the refugee quota might be increased.

Groups advocating an increase in the quota, whilst doubtless disappointed by the lack of concrete announcements, will likely hold the government to account on Woodhouse's words. The pressure will be on as the review of the refugee quota gets underway. There are other developments to also take into account. The Greens have released a draft Members Bill [read it here] which would amend the Immigration Act 2009 to allow for the quota to be increased to 1000. Denise Roche who is responsible for the bill has described it as a "modest increase that simply plays catch-up with where our refugee contribution ought to be." The proposed change is estimated to cost $19m over three years. Backing up this so-called "modest" increase, the Greens argue that millions of dollars have been spent on sending troops to Iraq and initiating a flag referendum, so there is no reason why we cannot invest in refugees.

Mohamed Shah Alam Ali, a Rohingya Muslim refugee originally from Myanmar, spoke personally to Radio New Zealand to ask the government to increase the refugee quota [listen here]. Spearheaded by journalist Stacey Knott, the Nelson Mail is publishing a series called "Settling for Good" that uses interviews and videos to share stories of refugees in the Nelson community (Nelson is one of the main areas where refugees are resettled.) [Have a look at the latest example here.]

Salil Shetty with Amnesty's new report on the global refugee crisis.

When I've talked to friends about this issue, a few have asked me if Amnesty International is also asking other governments to raise their quotas. The answer is that Amnesty International as a whole organisation has been outspoken in criticising governments around the world for not doing more to assist the estimated 50 million refugees in the world today.

Just a few days ago in Brunei, Amnesty produced a report provocatively titled "The Global Refugee Crisis: A Conspiracy of Neglect" arguing that "a paradigm shift is needed" when it comes to the current international refugee situation. The report focuses on vulnerable groups of refugees in Syria and sub-Saharan African countries. It is highly critical of the ways that wealthier governments have ignored refugee issues, leaving developing countries next-door to those steeped in conflict to pick up the pieces. As Amnesty argues, the Refugee Convention of 1951 establishes principles of international responsibility and burden-sharing, but these principles are being ignored in blatant contravention of international law. Governments may also be guilty not only of passively choosing not to intervene in desperate situations, but of actively encouraging xenophobia or turning refugees away from their borders. [Download the report here.] The report makes eight recommendations:

The refugee crisis includes sub-Saharan African as well as the Middle East.
  1. There should be an international summit on the global refugee crisis, focused on increasing international responsibility and burden-sharing.
  2. The Refugee Convention should be globally ratified.
  3. Human trafficking should be tackled.
  4. Resettlement needs identified by the UNHCR should be fulfilled.
  5. Governments should commit to saving lives, for instance by investing in search and rescue operations rather than prioritising border control.
  6. Governments should develop robust domestic refugee systems.
  7. Governments should refrain from engaging in xenophobia.
  8. Governments should fulfill UN humanitarian appeals for the refugee crises.
These are huge requests and taken together they might seem overwhelming (how can we possibly make progress when there is so much to be done?) But within countries we can focus on what the government is doing well (for New Zealand: our effective refugee resettlement strategy, the way that we co-operate across the government and NGO sector to support new arrivals, the way that we take on disabled refugees and women at risk) and where we can improve (increasing our quota and ensuring that we don't go down Australia's path of demonising refugees for supposed political gain.) Let's focus on these areas of potential and work across sectors to improve. As I said in an earlier post, we cannot rest on our laurels in a situation of such desperate need.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

World Refugee Day and New Zealand's Quiet War on Asylum

Saturday 20th June is celebrated around the world as World Refugee Day. This week in New Zealand, there have been a number of events to mark the occasion, such as a family-friendly day of cultural performances and international cuisine last weekend at Wellington's Rongotai College. At midday today, a number of individuals from government and refugee agencies - such as Red Cross Refugee Services and ChangeMakers Refugee Forum - will gather at Parliament to be addressed by refugee-background speakers and the Minister of Immigration, among others. The Immigration Minister generally makes an announcement at this annual event, so Amnesty International is hoping that Minister Woodhouse will announce that our refugee quota will be increased and that more Syrian refugees will urgently be resettled in our country. (See my last post for more on Amnesty's request.)

World Refugee Day commemorative photo by the UNHCR.

This famous photo will surely become a defining one of our decade.
People queueing for food supplies in Damascus, Syria. (UNWRA photo.)

Refugee issues have continued to crop up in the media lately. People have expressed outrage over allegations that the Australian government paid the captains of a boat of asylum seekers to take the boat back to Indonesia. (Can someone remind me the definition of people smuggling?) The Australian government refuses to confirm or deny these allegations - not the most persuasive defence one could muster. The plea to increase New Zealand's refugee quota made it onto National Radio's round up of news for about three days running, until it was superseded by the great Milo scandal. From Gore to Cape Reinga, New Zealanders were apparently mortified that the recipe of their favourite drink had been changed without their permission, and somehow the refugee story got lost in the kerfuffle.

World Refugee Day event at Parliament, 2013. (Red Cross.)

But if you're (incredibly) more concerned about the plight of vulnerable people than the taste of your evening drink, read on! I have a good book for you if you want some reflections on the following questions... How did Western governments inadvertently create the problem of boat arrivals? What is the link between New Zealand accepting Australian refugees under our quota and student debt? How does New Zealand's refugee resettlement process work and how has it changed?

Tracey Barnett and her book.
"The Quiet War on Asylum" was published last year by Bridget Williams Books.

Tracey Barnett, New Zealand author and columnist, has written eloquently about the refugee struggle in her book The Quiet War on Asylum. At just 119 mini pages, this slim smartphone-sized volume can be digested in a sitting and will keep you riveted through its mixture of persuasive analysis and heartfelt testimony. It took me just over two hours to read last night, so it is totally manageable for those of us studying for exams or working long hours. It'll cost you the same as lunch or a cheap meal out, selling for just $14.99 at VicBooks. I had heard positive feedback about the book and the lady who sold it to me stressed that the writing was fabulous, so I expected good things from Barnett. I was not disappointed. Now it's my task to convince you to read the book for yourself!

Angelina Jolie and other celebrities have been photographed in Thailand's Mae La refugee camp (on the Myanmar-Thai border) which Barnett visited. (UNHCR image.)

In 119 pages, Barnett sets out her case on how Australia is mistreating asylum seekers and why New Zealand is heading down the same track. Mostly in the present tense, the writing is upbeat and fast-moving. Barnett uses her own "incredible privilege" to testify for those vulnerable refugees who have become "the ultimate political pawns." She picnics with an Iranian asylum seeker family on One Tree Hill, interviews former Burmese political prisoners in Thailand and chats with a young Iraqi man in Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre. Right from the beginning, Barnett defines some key words such as refugee, asylum seeker, economic migrant and immigrant. As Barnett writes, "the language around refugees gets charged and purposely misframed when it hits the political arena." Words like illegals and queue jumpers are commonly misappropriated to manipulate voter opinion.

Detainees protesting at Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre. (The Australian.)

Barnett busts some common myths about the refugee experience. Is it illegal to arrive in Australia or New Zealand by boat? Definitely not: "according to international refugee law, officially asking for asylum is the legal way of entering a country to gain refuge and safety, no matter how you arrive." Are those who try to make it to Australia simply economic migrants? No: "over 90% of Australia's boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees fleeing persecution." Does Australia's policy of detaining asylum seekers serve as a deterrent to others? It hasn't so far and it is unlikely to ever do so. What is the fabled queue of refugee registration that governments speak of? In fact, the refugee resettlement process (being selected for resettlement by the UNHCR and then being taken on by destination country governments) is hectic and seemingly haphazard.Vilifying so-called queue jumpers is unfair and means that, "someone who has had the luck to resettle through UNHCR is suddenly more worthy than those who haven't even had that small piece of good fortune."

Ahmed Zaoui in Dave Dobbyn's song "Welcome Home." (Youtube.)

Tracey Barnett is unashamed in her condemnation of Australian refugee policy. She provides a timeline of policy changes and explains why the reinstatement of offshore processing violates the 1951 Refugee Convention. In her view, Australian policy is both dysfunctional: "large sums are spent on keeping small numbers of refugees out, and small sums on protecting large numbers of refugees in distant camps" and inhumane: revolving around "overt political xenophobia." New Zealand's community-based approach is far preferable, however, we do have our own skeletons in the closet. One can cite the treatment of Ahmed Zaoui and our longstanding preference for white refugees. Along with the Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International and the Ombudsman, Barnett slams the 2013 Mass Arrivals Act, fearing that we are entering a new phase of persecution. The "switch in tone that suddenly entered discussions about New Zealand's approach to refugees" suggests that we are going down the same route as our neighbours over the ditch. Barnett argues that we a doing a great injustice to asylum seekers who have already suffered terribly by incriminating them and threatening to have them incarcerated.

The Quiet War on Asylum gives some fascinating insights into the motivations behind the Australian and New Zealand governments. A journalist by trade, Tracey Barnett knows how to get to the bottom of sticky issues and how to make it all intelligible. I encourage you to read this book for yourself to appreciate the tribulations that refugees endure and to understand why we must do our utmost to treat these people with respect and dignity. What better a time to grab a copy of the book than around World Refugee Day?

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Spotlight on Increasing New Zealand's Refugee Quota

Late yesterday afternoon, a private meeting took place at Parliament between the politician child of an Austrian Jewish refugee and an Indian social justice campaigner raised by activist parents. Prime Minister John Key and a number of high officials met with Secretary-General of Amnesty International Salil Shetty to talk human rights.

Salil Shetty meets with youth supporters of Amnesty NZ. Source: Amnesty.

Shetty was in Wellington for the day on a busy schedule. He was interviewed by Radio New Zealand in the morning, and before his afternoon meeting he headed to Victoria University's Law School to speak to the public about Amnesty's current campaigns. Top on the agenda was the issue of refugees. Due in large part to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the world is in the grips of the most severe refugee crisis since the Second World War. Amnesty is appealing to developed countries to help accommodate those who have fled their homelands. New Zealand is not exempt from such appeals. Amnesty wants our government to increase its UNHCR refugee quota from the current level of 750 refugees per year, to 1500 refugees. The refugee quota has not climbed higher than 800 since 1987. Through its newly launched "Open to Syria" campaign, Amnesty is also requesting that the government accommodate a small number of the four million refugees (our entire population!) who have fled Syria.

The government spent $21 million upgrading the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. Source: Te Ara.

It is not as if our government has turned a blind eye to refugees. Early this year, the government started work upgrading facilities at Mangere's Refugee Resettlement Centre. This means that when refugees begin resettlement, they will have a more enjoyable experience in their six weeks of orientation. Last year, the government announced that it would resettle up to 100 Syrian refugees - a number included in our overall quota - in acknowledgement of the disaster creating havoc in the Middle East. The government has also provided humanitarian aid to the tune of some $14.5 million to support refugees in Iraq and Syria. Mike Wesley-Smith reported in a recent Campbell Live show (one of the last!) that an additional $5.6m was announced in last year's budget for refugee services, adding to the annual expenditure of $58m.

Yet Amnesty International is arguing that this is not enough. New Zealand is a wealthy country, Amnesty says, we have the capacity to increase assistance. New Zealand is in a prime position to take on a "leadership role" and set a good example to other countries; we are currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and in July we will act as the President of the UNSC. We publicly state that we "aim to achieve practical results and to make a positive impact on international peace and security." The magnitude of the refugee crisis should require us to act in the interest of those who are being persecuted. New Zealand is 87th in the world in terms of the number of refugees resettled in proportion to our overall population. We have created a high-quality resettlement programme which we can be proud of, and we should work to extend this programme to a larger number of refugees.

Prime Minister John Key and Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse conveniently posing in the same photograph, 2009. Source:

In response to calls to raise the refugee quota, John Key said on National Radio that the focus should be on the quality of refugee resettlement programmes, not the quantity of people resettled. "The issue here is," he says, "can we do a good job in resettling these people?" After all, he says, it's not as if taking on an extra few hundred refugees will solve international problems. "If you look at the scale of the issue, if we were to [increase our quota], it's hard to believe that's going to resolve the issue." Key is correct to stress the need to ensure that resettlement programmes are effective. It is a huge task to accommodate people from a variety of countries who may be unfamiliar with our language and culture. Refugees require assistance in receiving English tuition, finding employment and sending their children to school. They may have limited previous work experience. They may be traumatised from what they experienced, meaning that they require counselling services. There is also a huge amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes on interviewing potential migrants to New Zealand and ensuring these people have sound personal backgrounds.

However, there are difficulties inherent in extending any government service, and these particular difficulties are by no means insurmountable. The question is rather one of political will: will the government prioritise spending on refugee services, or will it perpetuate the status quo of inaction under the assumption that this issue is not one which people care enough about to cost it votes? It should be remembered that, in spite of facing challenges adjusting to the Kiwi culture, refugees perform admirably in their workplaces and communities. There are some shining examples of refugees who have so appreciated the opportunity to live in New Zealand that they have worked tirelessly in giving back to their communities. Furthermore, although it is clear that, as John Key notes, accepting an additional number of refugees will not solve the world's problems, this does not detract from the fact that increasing our quota is a laudable aim in itself. It is a feasible, practical way for New Zealand to act as a good international citizen and it means everything to those individuals whose lives are transformed when they are accepted under our quota.

Dame Susan Devoy, Race Relations Commissioner, has expressed support for the refugee quota to be increased. Source: TVNZ.

Amnesty International is not alone in demanding that our refugee quota is increased. The New Zealand Red Cross, which always treads carefully when it comes to political matters, has declared that it wants the refugee quota increased. Dame Susan Devoy, our Race Relations Commissioner, has also declared her support for the quota increase. The "Doing our Bit" campaign, spearheaded by individuals such as refugee champion Murdoch Stephens, provides statistics on its website where it advocates doubling of our refugee quota. In the political arena, NZ First Leader Winston Peters unexpectedly announced his support for a quota increase at a Victoria University student event. (It could well have been a Pols 101 lecture - Peters was a guest speaker when I took this class!) Peters was adamant that the refugee quota can be distinguished from other immigration policies. Labour has promised that if elected, it would increase the refugee quota, with Andrew Little stating on TVNZ's Breakfast that, "I certainly have no qualms about lifting it to, say, 1000." As well as critiquing our refugee quota, Labour has also condemned the government's latest announcement that people smugglers pose a "credible risk and threat" to New Zealand.

The issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat is causing a stir. Source: Asia-Pacific.

The issue of asylum seekers is a highly divisive one, in New Zealand as in Australia and many European countries. Following the discovery of a boat of 65 people from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar in Australian waters last week, John Key remarked that, "it fits in with what I've been saying for quite some time, these people smugglers are going to get hold of more robust boats, better capacity, this was a steel-hull boat that could have made it to New Zealand." If a boat made it to New Zealand, Key opined, "that opens up a pretty easy pathway for people to replicate."

When the government refers to "people smugglers" heading for our shores, this emotive language may be doing a disservice to the men, women and children who have paid to board boats out of desperation. It is a human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be able to seek asylum.  "People smugglers" is a term more apt to describe the individuals who profit by taking money from asylum seekers and setting them up on long, dangerous journeys over the seas. These individuals have been described by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as "the absolute scum of the earth." However, these men (primarily) are not necessarily the most repugnant characters you could encounter. They may be victims themselves; tricked by middlemen into taking on people smuggling roles, or they may have been lured into the role by prospects of higher pay. For a young man living in an impoverished Indonesian fishing community and trying to support his family on meager wages, the temptation of good pay and an adventure could be too much to resist. You can watch this Al Jazeera 101 East documentary to learn more.

Al Jazeera 101 East on people smugglers.

The issue of asylum seekers or people smugglers, as you wish, is a complex problem which requires holistic thinking to be addressed. It is unwise to simply vilify boat people in an attempt to score political points (good thing we have a strategy in place!) or to distract from other hot topics (so what was that news about dairy prices again?) This is a time when we need to appreciate the troubled political situations in countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, as well as in Iraq and Syria. Men, women and children who flee persecution are in a precarious position and could benefit from sensible government assistance. Increasing our refugee quota is not a silver bullet. All the same, it would be a realistic and practical way for New Zealand to play its part in helping respond to the current refugee crisis.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The need for more moral courage from those at the fringes

If you follow mainstream media, you would be excused for thinking that the 2015 NPT Review Conference was a complete and utter failure. After all, it resulted in no outcome document, which was surely the purpose of countries negotiating in the first place. Ban Ki-Moon expressed his sorrow over the inability to reach consensus. Serious rifts deepened over the issue of convening a conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction. According to the BBC, a fairly reputable source you would think: 
A UN conference aimed at preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons has ended in failure after a row over a nuclear-free Middle East proposal. The failure of the current talks means the next gathering could only be held in 2020 at the earliest.

Mainstream media may only show one side of a complex story. Image: Rose Gottemoeller, US Under Secretary for State, Arms Control and International Security.

Unfortunately, the BBC - like a number of international news outlets - has presented an inaccurate and incomplete view of the conference. (I don't blame them for their confusion given all the hypocrisy and finger-pointing they have to navigate.) For starters, "preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons" was but one of the three main objectives of the conference, much as nuclear-armed states would like to believe that enforcing non-proliferation was the real purpose of discussions. The next Review Conference was always going to happen in 2020 whatever the outcome, and preparatory conferences will take place from 2017. Most importantly, the view that the conference ended in failure is not universal.

But firstly, what exactly killed consensus? The immediate culprit has been identified as the issue of the Middle East weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ). A conference on this issue was previously supposed to take place in 2012, but this fell through. When countries gave their opening statements in the General Assembly, it was a recurring theme for them to call for the resumption of talks on the Middle East. At the RevCon, Egypt, along with other Arab and Non-Aligned Movement states, requested that a regional conference on the Middle East WMDFZ be convened within 180 days of the end of the conference, with or without the participation of Israel. Not a party to the NPT but observing the negotiations, Israel expressed its dissatisfaction at this proposal, which it argued would compromise its regional security position. The United States unsurprisingly backed Israel, and Canada and the United Kingdom obediently tagged along behind. Then when the conference collapsed through lack of consensus, each state protested that it wasn't responsible for this demise. The whole story, as reported by Reuters, makes one think of a bunch of primary school kids in the principal's office trying to exculpate their own naughty behaviour.

Depending on the speaker, fault variously lies with Egypt, Israel, Iran, the US, the NAM states, Canada and the UK, or a combination...

"U.S. Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller announced there was "no agreement" and accused some countries of undermining the negotiations. "We have made clear throughout the process that we will not accept the efforts by some to cynically manipulate the (conference) or try to leverage the negotiation to advance their narrow objectives." Egypt denied trying to wreck the conference. The U.S. concerns were echoed by Canada and Britain. Cairo's top delegate, Assistant Foreign Minister Hashim Badr, blamed Washington, London and Ottawa for the failure to achieve consensus, saying it was a "sad day for the NPT.""

The United States seemed resigned to accepting that the conference might not result in a tangible outcome. Rose Gottemoeller was able to pluck out a number of apparently satisfactory adjectives to describe the Egyptian government, yet the best she could come up with to describe an unsuitable final document was a feeble "bad."
"We know that this Treaty is more important than one idea or one person or one country. We also made clear that we were prepared to conclude this conference without a final consensus document rather than endorse a bad final document, just as we have said about other matters in the international arena."

It seems that the conference stalled during (apparently) limited-entry negotiations at the eleventh hour. There was never to be an outcome document of the review, watered down or not. The tireless efforts of countries around the world had gone to waste. Or had they? If you dig a little deeper, a more optimistic story emerges. The conference cemented the conviction held by the majority of states that international negotiations have thus far largely been hijacked by nuclear-armed states. States realise that alternatives routes to progress must be explored; non-nuclear weapons states must take it upon themselves to affect change. The National Catholic Reporter put it succinctly:

"At a diplomatic level, the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference will likely be viewed as a "failure"; among nuclear arms opponent activists, it could likely be seen as new moment of clarity and humanitarian resolve."

One minute we talk of failure and mess, the next of clarity and resolve?

The humanitarian resolve which the National Catholic Reporter refers to includes the renowned Humanitarian Pledge. Proposed by Austria, this pledge had attracted 65 signatures at the beginning of the conference, and this number swelled to over 100 (currently sitting at 107 states) by the end of the conference. This spike in signatories is due in great part to the hard lobbying work of campaigners. As Tim Wright tweeted:
107 nations have pledged to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. That's the story of #NPT2015

The Humanitarian Pledge was perhaps the most obvious successful story emerging from the conference. It is not the only success story, according to NGO Unfold Zero. As Unfold Zero writes in an article opportunistically entitled The Nuclear Phoenix:

"The failure masks the fact that some real gains were made during the course of the negotiations. This included a number of proposals in the draft outcome document that appeared to have found agreement by the NPT Parties. ... There were a number of other developments at the NPT Review Conference that could make a breakthrough in multilateral negotiations for global nuclear disarmament. Such negotiations have been blocked in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) for nearly 20 years. The developments include... a shift in focus from the CD to the United Nations as a whole to advance nuclear disarmament initiatives, and a general agreement (paragraph 154 (19) of the NPT draft outcome document) to establish  a UN Open Ended Working Group on nuclear disarmament."

Can the NPT be likened to a phoenix rising from the ashes?

It should be remembered that the draft document alone is unable to be enforced, but there is nothing to stop states from drawing on its principles to reach agreements now that the conference has finished. If Unfold Zero's analysis could be described as diplomatic and nuanced, NGO Wildfire does not hesitate to pull any punches. In fact, Wildfire recorded its predictions for the conference before negotiations even began.

Well, here we are at the end. What is the outcome? As far as nuclear disarmament is concerned, it doesn't matter. Nuclear disarmament will never be achieved through the NPT. So for those who really do want nuclear disarmament, what are you going to do about it? How long will you wait? Nobody is going do it for you.

The sense that non-nuclear weapons states need to take the initiative now has been echoed by many different governments and civil society groups. In her analysis for Reaching Critical Will, Ray Acheson declared that: All that is left now is for governments to find what South Africa called “moral courage” in order to begin a process to prohibit nuclear weapons.

We need moral courage to enter negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons.

Up until the present day, key nuclear disarmament initiatives can be attributed to the dedication of non-nuclear weapons states and civil society groups. This is the view of Matthew Bolton of Pace University, who writes in an eloquent article on his blog that, "in reviewing the history of nuclear weapons, the major moments of change occurred when those at the "fringes" - small states, middle powers, humanitarian agencies, human rights advocates, faith leaders and religious organizations, activists, intellectuals, and artists - spoke out, withdrew their consent, or moved forward on their own." For example, Bolton goes on to expand his argument:
"Many justifiably point to US President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 UN speech as a game-changer in the discourse about nuclear weapons, clearing stating that they “must be abolished before they abolish us.” But what is often overlooked is how much political pressure the US and Soviet foreign policy elite were under in the 1950s to end the debilitating terror of nuclear weapons.

Religious institutions like the Vatican and World Council of Churches issued strong condemnation of nuclear weapons. The 1955 “Manifesto” by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell signed by prominent intellectuals called for an “agreement to renounce nuclear weapons" ... and led to the founding of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. This was accompanied by a groundswell of social discontent, such as the Aldermaston Marches and the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—with its famous “peace sign” logo—in the late 1950s."

What role will New Zealand play in the initiatives to come?

As I hope I have demonstrated in this post, it is far too simplistic to write the NPT Review Conference off as a simple failure for disarmament. It is extremely unfortunate that new commitments and time-bound targets were not set. However, the 2015 NPT Review Conference should not be viewed as an ultimatum, but rather, as a platform from which we can expect some exciting initiatives to soon be launched.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Prophetic Imagination and the Humanitarian Pledge: Update on the NPT Conference

Today's blog post is a mélange of narration written during my trip home, and updates from the last three days of the Review Conference. I'm back in Wellington now, so I can't provide updates on the ground, but I wanted to fill you in on some of what has been reported by Reaching Critical Will. To get the original reports to which I am referring, just head to the RCW website; what I'm doing here is pulling out some main points and adding my own commentary. I won't be able to write over the next few days, (life and law school catch up!) but after the weekend I aim to update you on the conference outcome. There's not long to go now... the delegates will be working overtime!

Here goes, I'll start with the updates. An especially interesting recent development, I would say, is that the Austrian Pledge has been renamed the Humanitarian Pledge to ensure that it is viewed as being international. Skip to the 19th May for this point.

I thought this was really clever. It's from the World Federation of United Nations Associations website and was reprinted by Reaching Critical Will.

18th May. According to Ray Acheson, "the last [draft outcome text] is the weakest yet, with some particularly troubling backward steps; replacing eliminations with reductions, detonation with conflagration, and narrowing the reflection of support for initiatives and undertakings that the vast majority of states consider most important." It is concerning that intentions to create a comprehensive, progressive document are still being stymied by the nuclear-armed states and their allies. Ray Acheson urged all states to do their utmost to make forward progress. "In this final week of the Review Conference, states committed to multilateral action on nuclear weapons must hold their nerve, uphold the purpose of humanitarian reframing of nuclear weapons which has brought so much promise, and stick together on the basis of their common pledge to fill the legal gap."

A recent NGO side event focused on peace education. This is considered by many civil society and government delegates to be an integral part of keeping the momentum on disarmament going. Disarmament veterans unfortunately cannot keep going forever, so we must educate youth and imbue us youngsters with a determination to take up the cause. According to the Mexican Deputy Director-General for Disarmament, "education is central to cultivating an understand that a peace sustained by nuclear weapons is not a sustainable peace." Peace education ideas include: briefings for students, professional development for teachers, tailored programmes for diplomats, conferences, and sharing information over the web. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs organises art and poetry competitions on disarmament. NGOs working on disarmament offer volunteer positions and internships.

With some of the New Zealand delegation on my last day.
Raylene, me, Dell, Joanna and Lyndon.

The organisation Hibakusha Stories has taken to heart the need to spread the word on disarmament. For the last eight years, it has been involved in outreach in New York schools, reaching an audience of 30,000+ students. Hibakusha have spoken at student gatherings and have given first-hand testimonies of surviving the atomic bombings. An educational initiative took place during the Review Conference itself - 30 German students simulated negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention at the church centre opposite the UN. Delegates were encouraged to head across and watch as the students took on different country positions and role-played how a Nuclear Weapons Convention (based on the one drafted in 1996) would be created. Apparently it took longer than expected, but the students completed negotiations successfully in the end!

19th May. The Austrian Pledge was renamed the Humanitarian Pledge. Austria sought to make it crystal clear that the pledge is an international one and is does not only reflect an Austrian viewpoint. The link with "Austria" had been a sticking point with some nuclear-armed states. (Though this was apparently not considered an issue when it came to the Australian Pledge.) It remains to be seen if this move will be viewed favourably.

Ray Acheson remarked that during Main Conference One, "the nuclear-armed states delivered statements railing against the humanitarian initiative and the demand for a legally-binding instrument to fill the legal gap on nuclear weapons." However, Ray expressed hope in the ongoing relevance of the Humanitarian Pledge. "Four days are left in this RevCon, but the Humanitarian Pledge is a living document that will carry forward the momentum, the will, and the explicit commitment to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons."

A line up of civil society campaigners on Friday afternoon.
Gabriella, Mia, Ray, Tim, Thomas and Alice.

Varying views were expressed on the issue of negotiations arguably being dominated by a select number of states. According to France, most of the world's population lives in nuclear-armed states, so if we're discussing majorities and minorities, the majority of people in the world actually receive security benefits from nuclear weapons. According to South Africa, however, only a few states can reject an NPT outcome at any cost, so the NPT risks becoming a treaty of the nuclear-armed states.

At a side event, Dr Emily Welty of the World Council of Churches dismissed claims that disarmament discussions should be solely pragmatic or realistic and noted that for people of faith, disarmament requires engagement in aspects of "prophetic imagination."

Thomas Nash wrote up a motivational report for diplomats hailing from nuclear-armed and -dependent states, encouraging them to "listen to the voice inside yourself that is questioning your opposition." His message to government officials was that, "you need to show leadership, to reject this negative culture around you."

20th May. There is still no consensus on any of the Main Committee texts!! Chairs of Main Committees have been meeting in smaller, parallel groups to try and reach agreement. The downside to this arrangement is that developing countries and civil society may be (inadvertently or otherwise) excluded from negotiations.

The Humanitarian Pledge now has over 90 endorsing states!!

There was a huge Falun Gong demonstration in Dag's Plaza on Friday. Protesters from near and far were decked out in matching bright yellow t-shirts.

Japan has requested that language asking world leaders and youth to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki be inserted into outcome documents. This is positive, although it is a political move, as it seems that the Japanese government is trying to deflect attention away from its continued adherence to the doctrine of extended nuclear deterrence. The suggested additional language has angered China and South Korea, which claim that Japan should not be recognised given the grave atrocities it committed during World War Two. It is notable though that the Philippines and the Marshall Islands (whose people also fell victim to Japanese wartime atrocities) did not oppose the amendments.

A side event was held examining how the EU contributes to disarmament and non-proliferation. There is very little agreement within the EU on nuclear weapons and nuclear energy (more disagreement than ever since 1990 apparently), however, EU members accept that the use of force is not the proper way to resolve disputes.

And here are some thoughts of mine that never made it into a separate blog post. Just because I may as well post rather than discard them!

It rained for the first time in three weeks on my last day in New York. In a city full of motion - people bustling about with prams and shopping bags, cars turning in front of pedestrians, the ubiquitous police chase - the soft rain provided an element of constancy in an otherwise uncertain world. I felt I should do something symbolic to mark my last day, but I wasn't sure what. I ate a soft serve cone. I watched a street parade; clapping along as people marched by and trucks decked with colourful streamers rumbled along 47th Street. When the time came to head to the airport, I stepped onto the road and hailed my first taxi.

The airport bookshops were bursting with self-help books.

As my plane took off, a lady nearby exclaimed, "everything gets small so fast!" Indeed. My three-week trip was fast receding into the hazy New York skyline, transforming into a mysterious window of my life that can never be relived. Three monks sat behind me on my flight to LAX, a baseball-playing Australian sat beside me on my flight to Brisbane. He thought Wellington was in New South Wales.

Sometimes when I think about the goal of nuclear disarmament, it seems distant and complicated. There are thousands of nuclear weapons in the world, (16,400 according to SIPRI, I can parrot off this number without thinking, but I still cannot get my head around the immense destruction this number invokes) and destroying them will be a laborious business. Nuclear elimination would still not guarantee that the nuclear threat will never again rear its ugly head. In the meantime, there are plenty of people who are convinced that abolishing nuclear weapons is not possible, or even desirable.

Other times, I feel more optimistic. One hundred years ago there were no nuclear weapons. Who is to say that it is inevitable they must exist one hundred years from now? Or even twenty years?? There are a huge number of people agitating for change, and there is an extraordinary amount of untapped potential. I believe that most people, once they understand the gravity of the situation, would not support the retention of nuclear weapons. The 90+ states supporting the Humanitarian Pledge give us something to get inspired about. My personal goal now is to keep learning on this subject and to keep communicating the need to abolish nuclear weapons. My contribution may be tiny in the vast scheme of things, but it is important to take action as we are able, whilst appreciating that we are part of a wider movement pressing for a safer, fairer world.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Reconciled with NYC, not with NPT: Inequality and Injustice Abound

I've started receiving Virgin emails reminding me about my upcoming flight, so that's a sign my time in New York is fast coming to an end. I fly out on Saturday, leaving me just one more day of the conference. Wow. As I walked back to my hostel today, I took my usual route through the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza (Hammarskjold was a former UN Secretary-General) where people were out walking their dogs - or alternatively their children - and enjoying the evening sun. There was a sense of quiet serenity which is quite uncommon in New York. I thought to myself, "yes, I could handle living in New York," and realised it took three weeks for me to reconcile myself with the city.

I love walking through Central Park...

... especially because there are squirrels!

Despite its international appeal, there is much that I haven't liked about New York. A country girl at heart, I find the constant streams of traffic, the never-ending police sirens, and the crowds of people in a hurry all rather exhausting. I've spent time in Europe, but this is a new kind of frenetic. Going on the subway at rush hour was an experience not to be repeated unless strictly necessary. It is saddening to see people sleeping on the pavement on cold nights just doors away from glamorous fashion outlets. And the waste! This is a city where people religiously save up their 1 cent coins to feed vending machines in return for a pepsi, but where everything else is discarded immediately after use. Even at the UN, (where people ought to know a thing or two about sustainability!) lunches come on polystyrene trays, with plastic knives and forks and bottled water - everything is promptly binned afterwards. Apples are sold wrapped in plastic. When you check out your groceries in town, they are handed back doubled-bagged. Rubbish bags swollen full of packaging clutter the street corners and very little seems to be recycled.

Heaps of rubbish bags on footpaths are a common site.
This lot is just opposite the UN, as the sign indicates.

There is another side to New York City of course. Central Park is just glorious at this time of year; the trees adorned with soft green leaves and the families out picnicking on the lawns. The sweeping view of the city at nighttime is just beautiful as you look out over the twinkling lights and bridges. Tulips bursts from the flowerbeds of Soho and TriBeCa. If you missed lunch, you can buy pretzels, roasted nuts and juicy mangoes from street-sellers, and top it off with a soft serve cone. And what a bonus to have so many incredible museums, art galleries - and Broadway! - right on your doorstep. Since the city never sleeps. you can leave your house at 2am to get your photocopying done at the local FedEx- I did this one time, out of necessity!

As I walked home today I realised that I have come to appreciate the pumping metropolis that is New York. Not just because we're supposed to love New York City, as all the t-shirts and TV shows tell us. More because I've carved out a little niche for myself in Midtown East and that I've got a feel of the community. I like it how on Wednesday mornings a farmer's market is set up at Dag Hammarskjold's plaza, so the footpath is transformed into a little hive of activity. I've nutted out the best places within five blocks to get decent cheap food - and today at my favourite Chinese diner (restaurant? I'm already adopting American English!) the guy behind the counter saw me and said, "hey, you're the lady who came in last Thursday and bought the..." and proceeded to rattle off my last meal. Maybe he remembered my ban nuclear weapons! bag. I know the staff at my hostel and the security guards at the UN, and we stop and have a chat now and again.

American sense of humour? These signs are everywhere!

Moreover, we civil society delegates form a mini community of expats. We are rather a mixed bunch - speaking different languages, hailing from different backgrounds, but all barred from Subsidiary Body One meetings and united in our will to rid the world of nukes. I've got to know the personalities of some of the delegates I've mentioned on my blog and many more besides. Helping out for three weeks as a virtual newcomer to disarmament negotiations is definitely a lesson in humility. Civil society delegates don't work for money, status, or any other perks. If you work for an NGO, chances are you don't get paid an awful lot and your organisation is perpetually stretched for cash. You don't have the status of someone working in government, even though you may be better qualified, and you are frequently written off as a radical / do-gooder / idealist. It would be wrong to label your work as "rewarding." There are definitely rewarding aspects and successes when they do come are significant (e.g. banning cluster munitions) but successes may be limited. In the meantime, the subject matter can be distressing and the outlook bleak.

Frustrating is a word that springs easily to my mind when I think about the NPT. I have great respect for delegates - both civil society and governmental - who have been involved in nuclear disarmament for years and who have had their best efforts to make change continually thwarted by those determined to maintain the status quo. Instead of giving up, these delegates focus on what has been achieved (like the 159-strong humanitarian statement) and build a strong rapport with other campaigners which they need to get them through. Peer support and a sense of humour are vital!

There are lots of steam vents in New York.

What is most frustrating for me is the inequalities inherent in these negotiations. All that I've learnt about the UN's unequal playing field in textbooks is suddenly amplified seeing it in the flesh. States are currently working in the three different committees to edit and refine draft outcome documents. We civil society reps listen into these discussions, and it is incredibly disheartening to hear some states simply refuse to include wording that the majority of states have assented to. For instance, France today in Main Committee One completely gutted the draft document. The French delegate talked for an interminably long time, referring to one paragraph after another that his government finds unacceptable and wants changed. The types of things that France and other nuclear-armed states want amended are precisely those points which civil society insists must be acknowledged.

Have a read of these examples. I'm drawing here from Reaching Critical Will analysis. (Note that Main Committee One + Subsidiary Body One concern disarmament and these drafts are now merged.)

Statements in Committees, Main Committee One:
  • On Monday, the US and France stated that the paragraphs on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons were unacceptable. The UK suggested these paragraphs be deleted in the second part of the report.
  • France suggested there has been no new information on the humanitarian impact or risk of nuclear weapons use for decades. The US stated that there is not an increased risk of the use of nuclear weapons.
  • France suggested deleting reference to the 1996 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on nuclear weapons.
  • Yesterday, the US delegation argued that there can be no timelines for nuclear disarmament. France called for the deletion of two critical paragraphs on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons.
Looking south from the secretariat cafe.

Changes to Draft Texts, Subsidiary Body One:
(We might not be allowed in Subsidiary Body One, but we have our sources!)
  • On Tuesday, the text in a preambular paragraph was changed from: "It is in the interests of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons never be used again under any circumstances" to "it is in the interests of humanity that the nearly seventy-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons be extended forever."
  • In an operative paragraph, the text was changed from "calls upon" to "encourages" Russia and the US to undertake further reductions.
  • "Encourages all states that have not yet eliminated nuclear weapons from security doctrines to abandon" policies that envision the first use of nuclear weapons, was changed to "encourages all states to continue to review" nuclear security doctrines.
  • Yesterday, the reference to many hundreds of weapons on high alert was deleted. One operative clause deleted all the language regarding the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If you feel keen for some gloomy reading - follow this link!

I find last change is especially distressing. I think it is a great insult to deny recognition to the Hibakusha in the outcome document - a slap in the face to those who have endured so much pain. Unfortunately, outcome documents at this conference require consensus, so they are being continuously whittled back as nuclear-armed and dependent states mercilessly strike down provisions which the majority of non-nuclear weapons states have endorsed.

Spot the best dressed man in Times Square.

What serves to accentuate this problem is the fact that some countries are underrepresented at disarmament negotiations. Negotiations are dominated by wealthy states who send more delegates and make more statements. NGO Article 36 has just released a discussion paper on this topic. It argues that, nuclear disarmament is a global concern: the interests of all countries must be represented for any attempt to achieve the most equitable outcomes for populations worldwide... Where better representation is achieved, in terms of both quantity and quality of participation, discussions may have a greater chance of generating a more balanced debate and a larger range of proposals to address global disarmament concerns... Greater equitability between countries in multilateral forums is important in principle - as well having the potential to change dynamics.

At the moment, the system is unbalanced. Article 36 found that:
  • The higher a country's income category, the more likely it was to send a delegation, the greater the size of the delegation on average, and the more likely that country was to deliver an individual statement.
  • At the 2010 Review Conference, the largest delegation sent by a high-income country had 43 delegates, and by a low-income country, 10.
  • Between 2010-14, the percentage of low-income NPT parties making a statement to the main committees, clusters and specific issues was only 1% on average across all meetings.
Why does this discrepancy occur?
  • Developing countries lack financial resources to pay for larger numbers of delegates to attend conferences. Delegates may also be less well-versed on the particular issues at hand since they are forced to oversee wider portfolios of work.
  • Small delegations have to prioritise other issues. They sign up to group statements rather than presenting individual statements. They may put most effort into poverty and development rather than disarmament forums as they see these other areas as being more necessary in the short-term.
From an artwork gifted by the Philippines to the UN.

Why does this matter?
  • Developing countries have perspectives on nuclear weapons that are not fairly represented. Developing countries might be particularly badly affected if a nuclear incident occurs and their citizens may already have been the victims of nuclear tests.
  • These countries may have abandoned or never developed nuclear programmes; They are often members of nuclear weapons-free zones. They have a strong interest in abolishing nuclear weapons, but their voices are not always heard.

The International Law and Policy Institute, ILPI, has conducted similar research and reached similar conclusions. It agrees with Article 36 that, the increased presence [of developing countries] at disarmament conferences is the key factor that determines inclusiveness, representation, and legitimacy.

Many non-nuclear weapons states are developing states. They face an immediate disadvantage in these negotiations. Sponsorship programmes and civil society support can help reduce these inequalities, but more needs to be done. A large number of civil society advocates argue that the track record of NPT review conferences is poor (along with those of the Conference on Disarmament) and that we must move to other, more inclusive, forums to advance comprehensive measures on disarmament. This could include the General Assembly or ad hoc forums, where consensus would not be necessary. Delegates from civil society and non-nuclear weapons states are frustrated at being manipulated by a small number of nuclear-armed states. They are looking to other options for progress.