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. (Boston.com)

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." (Litteration.com)

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.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

A State Without Parallel: North Korea and Human Rights Violations

This weekend, Wellington is celebrating 150 years as New Zealand's capital city. There are all sorts of activities taking place, such as a light show at Parliament and performances by the symphony orchestra and ballet. Wellingtonians and visitors are encouraged to wander around the city and check out local landmarks which are open free of charge. So long as you're prepared to queue for half an hour, you are welcome to traipse through John Key's living room at Premier House and explore the PM's Wellington garden. The state is actively encouraging its population to investigate places of significance and to learn about New Zealand history and politics. Indeed, Speaker of the House Hon David Carter remarked at yesterday's light show that the aim of the celebrations was not just to show off landmarks, but to motivate people to get more involved in national politics.

Contrasted with New Zealand's apparent embrace of civic education and transparency in government, the regime in North Korea seems even more absurdly repressive. If you travel to North Korea, you must be accompanied all the time and you are only allowed to see certain designated sights. There is no way you could just wander unsupervised around Pyongyang and call into Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un's house. The workings of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but evidence by the United Nations and Amnesty International point to a totalitarian state where grave human rights violations are perpetrated against the civilian population. In 2014, the UN Human Rights Council released the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, the culmination of a year's work of documenting evidence about the regime. Last Thursday, Victoria University law students were able to hear from Hon Michael Kirby, the Commission's Chair, when he gave a speech at law school.

Michael Kirby is something of a celebrity in the legal world (look him up on google for proof!) and the lecture theatre was suitably packed on Thursday evening. Kirby was at times sombre, at times high-spirited as he explained to the audience how the Commission of Inquiry went about its work. Kirby emphasised that the Commission took a risk in taking a markedly different approach to other UN inquiries, yet this approach has now been hailed as a success and a hallmark for the future.

Michael Kirby with the report of the Commission of Inquiry.

The difference, said Kirby, was the assiduous focus on transparency throughout the inquiry process. Barred from entering the DPRK to interview citizens, the inquiry instead set up public hearings in Tokyo, Seoul, London and Washington DC where it heard witness testimonies from individuals who had fled North Korea. The 80+ public hearings were, clearly, public, meaning that interested individuals and media personnel could drop in to observe the process. The recorded testimonies and their transcripts can be accessed on the internet. (There are also 240+ confidential interviews by witnesses who were fearful of revealing their identities, and there were 80 public submissions by states and international organisations.) The report is available on the internet and Kirby spent many hours reading over the text to ensure the writing style was crisp and accessible. The full report is just under 400 pages in length, peppered with witness testimony; there is also a 36 page summary including appended letters sent to the governments of China and North Korea. The DPRK was encouraged to defend its case to ensure the state had a "fair right of reply," however, it refused to co-operate through the process and rejected the whole inquiry. A letter was sent to the office of Kim Jong-Un but no reply was received.

Kirby explained that the focus on transparency was influenced by the common law. The civil code, Kirby explained (meaning the legal system which arose from Napoleonic France and is now followed by many states around the world) is "efficient verging towards being authoritarian and secretive," whereas the common law system (emanating from England and followed in New Zealand and Australia among others) is "more transparent, flexible and accessible." In the tradition of the common law, the Commission maintained as much transparency as possible, without putting witnesses at risk. (Kirby stated that he has not heard of witnesses suffering as a consequence of speaking out, but I note that the Commission attests to having paid "particular attention" to victim protection whilst denying full responsibility for any problems and insisting that nation states have the key role in protecting witnesses.) The emphasis on transparency was all the more important given that the North Korean regime is clearly not transparent: the inquiry further demonstrates the gap between North Korea and the rest of the world (common law or not!)

A public hearing showing a witness testifying to the three appointed commissioners: Marzurki Darusman, Michael Kirby and Sonja Biserko.

So what does the report cover?

To provide a little background - the Commission was established via a UN Security Council resolution (22/13) in March 2013. Its mandate by the Human Rights Council was to "investigate systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the DPRK" and there were nine specific areas of focus (like discrimination and torture.) Special attention was given to gender-based violence. It was noted that the DPRK is party to a number of international human rights agreements including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The report speaks for yourself if you read it. There is no doubt about it that there are reasonable grounds to suspect organs of the state (e.g. State Security Department, Korean People's Army) of committing crimes against humanity, including: extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape... and the list goes on. These are no "mere excesses of the state" but they are "essential components of [the] political system." The DPRK is a state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world." This is a totalitarian state characterised by an "isolationist" mindset and ruled by a "personality cult" which is described by the state as "Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism."

The report describes the regime as a totalitarian personality cult.

Some of the charges against the regime include an "almost complete denial" of the right to freedom of expression. For instance, (this info comes from the BBC) all North Koreans bar some elites cannot access the internet. They can only access a government controlled "Red Star" intranet which includes the "Voice of Korea" news service in which Kim Jong-Un's name always appears larger than the surrounding text. Citizens are indoctrinated to love Kim Jong-Un and the Korean Worker's Party (the sole political party) and to hate the US, Japan and South Korea. People are rewarded for dobbing in fellow citizens for committing "anti-state crimes" such as speaking out against the regime. Telephone calls are monitored - although people are increasingly smuggling Chinese cellphones into the country and going to great lengths to make calls undetected.

Discrimination persists through the songbun class system which dictates where people live, how much education they receive and even how much food they are given. Women are vulnerable to gender-based discrimination and invasive body searches. Funds are lavished on the elite class and the military at the same time as whole segments of the population starve. 27% of babies are born stunted. Humanitarian aid agencies have been denied access to the country, as have human rights monitors. There are an estimated 80,000 - 120,ooo political prisoners detained in four kwanliso camps. (The DPRK denies the existence of these camps, yet they can be clearly seen through satellite imagery.) Inmates are tortured and forced abortions and infanticide are routinely practised.

Some individuals presented sketches as evidence for the inquiry. This one documents conditions in political prison camps, where inmates eat snakes and rats to survive.

The report clearly points the finger at Kim Jong-Un, the Worker's Party and the organs of government, yet it goes further in stressing the culpability of other nations in bringing about this horrific situation. It notes that the situation has been influenced by the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the Cold War and the division of the Korean peninsula. The "great powers" in particular are called on to face up to their "unfortunate legacies."

The report recommends a number of actions. The DPRK must undertake political reforms, it must allow aid agencies access to the country, it must amend its criminal code and acknowledge its ongoing human rights violations. Other states, in particular China, must respect the international principle (under refugee law) of non-refoulement and must not force North Korean refugees to return to the DPRK. The international community must take action: the Security Council should refer the situation to the International Criminal Court for investigation of crimes against humanity. Sanctions must be increased; they should be targeted not against the general population, but very specifically against the perpetrators of alleged crimes against humanity. The General Assembly and Human Rights Council must step up their monitoring of the state's human rights situation.

Images like these make one think of rallies in Nazi Germany.

After speaking to Victoria University students, Michael Kirby was due to meet with staff at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He wants the New Zealand government to keep "alert" and to back up the Commission's report. This will take courage from the government, as New Zealand must risk incurring the wrath of the major trading partner China, yet Kirby stressed this is what we are called to do as a current member of the Security Council - a body tasked with protecting international peace and security.

The situation in North Korea is truly shocking. I don't think further evidence is needed to confirm that action is sorely needed - unless contrary information suddenly and miraculously comes to light. What is needed is rigorous analysis so that we can understand the impacts of different courses of action. It would be tragic if the Security Council took action (unlikely at this point though the situation may change) only to worsen the situation - with the populace suffering from sanctions and the Korean army cracking down more heavily on dissent. The Commission of Inquiry's report provides the international community with a call to action and now the matter is up for debate as to how best to act, without causing unintended side effects, in the interests of justice.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Iran and Nuclear Non-Proliferation: A Great Deal or a Great Big Mess?

A couple of weeks back I gave a speech to school students on disarmament, and to get the students engaged, I started off with a little quiz. One of my questions asked, which countries possess nuclear weapons? The answers given in response were telling. All the students knew that Russia, the US, North Korea and the like possessed nuclear weapons, but not one mentioned Israel's not insignificant stockpiles. Moreover, I gave my talk to two groups of students and both times students suggested that Iran also possessed nuclear weapons. (Iraq was even ventured by one.) It's possible the students were joking, but I get the sense that a common misconception by people (of all ages) in our communities is that Iran does possess nuclear weapons. In fact, the international consensus is that Iran possesses no nuclear weapons whatsoever. Iran has always maintained that its nuclear facilities are for peaceful purposes, but this promise has not reassured many world powers which believe it to be furtively attempting to develop nuclear weapons. Since Tuesday though, a non-proliferation deal has been brokered by which Iran will be prevented from ever gaining nuclear weapons capabilities should it try (or continue to try) going down this track. So what was the Iranian deal about and how has it been received internationally?

Iranians celebrating the deal on the streets of Tehran.
Washington Times image.

In a nutshell, the deal is that Iran subjects its nuclear facilities to ongoing IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspections in return for the removal of economic sanctions which have been crippling the nation's economy for decades. Over the last year and a half, Iran has been negotiating this deal with the E3+3 states (France, Germany and the United Kingdom, along with China, Russia and the United States) and the 139-page agreement released on Tuesday is the fruit of these efforts. The green light is still required from the American Congress and the Iranian Parliament before a UN Security Council resolution on the matter can be passed. Once this happens, sanctions will be lifted in phases, allowing the country to once more engage in international trade and improve its economic position. (So long as the extra money is used for the right purposes!) In return, Iran promises to never develop nuclear weapons, at least for a decade. Nuclear facilities will be redesigned, some centrifuges will be dismantled, and there will be inspections by the IAEA if evidence suggests suspicious activity is taking place. Iran will not be able to possess enough uranium to manufacture a weapon, although it will still be able to use uranium for peaceful purposes. If Iran reneges on any part of the deal, sanctions will be reinstated.

Iran's Javad Zarif was pleased to see his work pay off in reaching the deal.
Wall Street Journal image.

How has the deal been received? With great excitement from most quarters, but a few notable exceptions. Newspaper headlines applaud the completion of an "historic deal," a "framework for the future" and the forging of a "new relationship" between the US and Iran. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani described the deal as a "political victory" and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that the "win win" deal means it's time for the "broadening of regional and international cooperation." Barack Obama proudly stated that, "every pathway to a nuclear weapon has been cut off." (After all, nuclear weapons are only dangerous when they fall into the hands of less compliant states!)

When I was at the UN for the Nuclear NPT negotiations a couple of months back, a significant number of countries praised the (then nearing completion) Iranian talks. It was said that, if the deal was brokered as hoped, this would represent a victory for global non-proliferation. (Close allies of the E3+3 states were quick to praise the deal to impress their friends, and the E3+3 states used the deal to detract attention from their lack of progress on nuclear disarmament. But that's another story...) As Jack Tame exclaimed on NewsTalk ZB, the deal is incredible given that Iran and the United States "openly despised one another." Tame noted that Iran once called America "the great Satan" and that America has labelled Iran "the greatest state sponsor of terrorism." The deal, Tame mused, is certainly "a great example of what engagement can achieve." (Great!)

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu won't have a bar of the deal.

Yet not everybody would describe the deal in such extolling terms. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is furious at the whole situation. Reflecting the widespread skepticism among Israelis, Netanyahu argues that Iran poses a great danger to the region, indeed the whole world, and that the deal only surrendered to Iran's expansionist wishes. "The world is a much more dangerous place today than yesterday," he warned on Tuesday. Similarly, the Saudi government distrusts Iran's alleged aggressive ambitions for the Middle East.

For quite different reasons, many critics are similarly skeptical about the worth of the deal. Investigative journalist and historian Gareth Porter expressed his cynicism on Radio New Zealand National, arguing that the situation in the Middle East is too "chaotic" for this agreement to help regain regional stability. Besides, the structural "mess" of American politics will prevent the deal from ever gaining traction. The US, Porter argues, is too committed to (and financially dependent on) its alliances with Saudi Arabia and Israel to recognise the inherent value in cooperating with Iran on issues such as counter-terrorism in the wake of ISIL. (Given that President Bush listed Iran on the "Axis of Evil" it is somewhat amusing picturing the US now collaborating with Iran to curb terrorism.)

From Porter's perspective, Iran has been trying to get the Americans to engage in diplomatic negotiations since the early 1990s. In an effort to offset sanctions, Iran consistently approached the Americans but was given the cold shoulder until the second term of the Obama Administration. Before then, Porter describes any diplomacy on the part of the US as nothing more than a "gimmick" - a convenient political cover to disguise underlying American ambitions for regime change.

Journalist Gareth Porter holding his book "Manufactured Crisis."
Veterans News Now Image.

In the end, Porter argues, Iran had no choice but to use its enrichment programme to get the attention of the US. (This in turn left the US with no choice but to respond to Iran on its own terms and negotiate.) This is a serious claim, one which totally upends the normal story of Iran being hellbent on regional expansion, but Porter backs it up with rigorous analysis. He argues that Iran, far from wanting to oppose the US, actually wants to collaborate to improve the track record between the two states. Whilst there are certainly factions within Iran which are hostile towards the West, Iran's leadership hopes to eventually become integrated into the global economy. When Iran was tested to the limit in the Iran-Iraq War, the nation did not resort to using WMDs like chemical weapons. The Supreme Leader issued a fatwa instructing that such weapons were prohibited, and this instruction has been unfailingly respected. At this point in the interview, Porter neglected to highlight the obvious hypocrisy of the US government pointing a finger at Iran's supposed desire to develop nuclear weapons, yet never apologising for its own vast nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Yet perhaps Porter's assessment of Iran is too lenient. After all, this is a regime which has supported Al-Assad, which arrests journalists and holds opposition members without trial... a country with a rate of executions matched only by China. Can we really trust the intentions of this country to the extent that we not only accept the 'peaceful purposes of nuclear material' mantra, but we also accept that Iran became interested in uranium enrichment in order to persuade the big powers to join it at the negotiating table?

Amnesty International has drawn attention to Iran's huge 2014 execution rate.

It seems that Iran thought that the appearance of nuclear capabilities allowed it to muscle in on the international scene, for better or worse. And economic sanctions were undoubtedly taking their toll - an all too familiar human toll - on the people of Iran.

The sanctions imposed on Iran by the EU and US were intended to limit international commercial transactions by targeting Iran's Central Bank amongst others, but the impacts were wide-reaching. Iran has faced difficulties importing crucial goods such as pharmaceuticals and specialised medical equipment. There has been a high incidence of cancer, and conditions such as multiple sclerosis and haemophilia have not been adequately treated. This has had disastrous effects, such as seeing some haemophilia sufferers bleed to death. The cost of medical treatment became prohibitively expensive for 40% of the population. (Many people could not pay because they could not secure jobs to begin with; there was an estimated 20% unemployment rate.) Al Jazeera has condemned the sanctions as "draconian," saying that their central goal is "economic warfare" and "the collective punishment of millions of innocent people." The intention was to harm the Iranian people so that they would pressure their government into "acquiescing into the West's demands."

Now that the nuclear deal has been struck, images abound of Iranian men and women celebrating out on the streets. Once implemented, the deal is expected to transform the lives of thousands of Iranian citizens, so long as the fresh cash in the economy gets to those in need. The significance of the deal for the wider political climate in the Middle East and beyond remains to be seen.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Facebook is Banned in the Pacific! What's Going on in Nauru?

On the radio yesterday, I heard that the rule of law in Nauru was in danger. An opposition MP's passport had been cancelled, critics of the government were being threatened, and facebook had been banned. The situation resembled a fact scenario I had encountered in Public Law last year, I thought vaguely, before realising that my university fact problem of the previous year had of course been modelled off Nauru's 2014 constitutional situation.

The Nauruan people are concerned that freedom of speech is under attack.

I knew next to nothing about Nauru; only that it was a small Pacific nation and that it was home to one of Australia's refugee detention centres. Some internet research (see resources at end) gave me a glimpse of the nation's unique geography and its turbulent history. Nauru is part of Micronesia; it sits right on the equator in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 2900kms north-east of Australia. Nauru is tiny; it takes thirty minutes to drive around its circumference following the island's only road. Its 21 square kilometres is home to a population of some 10,000 inhabitants. The island gained independence in the 60s and up until then it was governed alternatively by the Germans, Japanese and as a League of Nations mandate. There was a time when the Nauruan people were some of the wealthiest in the world. The island made its fortunes exporting phosphate, a mineral mined from the ground and used in the production of chemical fertilisers. During the 60s and 70s, the nation earned millions from the work of the Nauru Phosphate Corporation.

Nauru from the air - a "blink and you miss it" island.

Over time, most of Nauru's phosphate reserves were used up. A scarred, barren landscape remained. A trust fund was established so that mining proceeds could be invested, with the interest earned intended to support the islanders for years down the track. This plan may have been successful had it not been for a number of factors working against the Nauruans. Funds were lost on unsuccessful projects, financial advisors swindled away millions, corrupt politicians spent the nation's money on their own lavish lifestyles. Former President Harris liked to travel by Concorde and buy his wife expensive jewellery with the Nauruan funds. 

The country spiralled into debt. Nauruans couldn't find work and were forced to live below the poverty line. A dramatic illustration of the simple lack of money is the frequent power outages which continue to afflict the island. Patients who would otherwise have been cured died in hospital when medical equipment became inoperable, and bodies rotted in morgues when refrigerators could not be used. The country today relies on international aid to stay afloat. The restart of the refugee detention centre (which Nauru hosts for the Australian government) brought some jobs to Nauru, but this is not enough to pay country's debts. Food is flown in from Australia, yet much of this is processed and the islanders suffer from one of the highest incidences of diabetes in the world. To add to the country's woes, Nauru is already experiencing coastal erosion and is at risk of suffering the worst effects of climate change, including sea level rises and more severe storms.

Phosphate mining caused tremendous damage to the island's environment.

With such a bleak environmental and economic outlook, it is little wonder that Nauru has in recent years experienced political unrest. It is unfortunate that Nauru's story sounds much like a classic case study for students of law and political science. Greed leading humans to damage the environment irreparably mimics the downfall of the Easter Islands. It is easy to observe the dangerous consequences of environmental exploitation on a small island, but I fear that were we able to take a step back and assess our planet earth from above, we would see the same situation playing out on a greater scale, slowly but surely.

I'm conscious that I haven't yet answered my primary question for this post - what's actually happening in Nauru at the moment? Things are looking pretty tense. Five out of seven opposition MPs have been expelled from Parliament due to (by the government's own admission) speaking to foreign media. Three MPs face criminal charges, allegedly for inciting violence. MP Roland Kun has had his passport cancelled and is unable to visit his wife and family in New Zealand. Access to facebook is being restricted. Magistrate Peter Law was deported last year (after issuing injunctions to prevent what Law viewed as the unnecessarily harsh deportation of two residents) and Chief Justice Eames resigned last year over the issue of judicial independence.

Judges are now appointed on six month terms. This is a blatant blow to the principle of judicial independence, as it now appears that judges must conform with the wills of government or risk losing their jobs. Local media have been barred from speaking to opposition MPs and escalating prices for journalist visas deter international reporters from travelling to the island. Certainly journalists are not allowed to report from the refugee detention centre. For its part, the Nauruan government argues that the situation has been blown out of proportion. The Justice Minister stated, "contrary to reports in some section of the media, there is certainly no breakdown of democracy or any other turmoil in Nauru. We are merely upholding the rule of law and those who break the rules will be arrested." The Minister said that opposition MPs currently before the courts would be given a fair trial.

Roland Kun - the opposition MP who is being forcefully separated from his family.

The New Zealand Parliament has passed a motion expressing concern over the way things are headed in Nauru. Foreign Minister McCully is in Nauru speaking with President Baron Waqa at the moment. According to McCully, "New Zealand is taking the reports coming out of Nauru very seriously and this meeting is an opportunity to pass on our concerns and discuss our contribution to the justice sector in light of recent events." Our government has a particular interest in the situation given that we are the principal funder of Nauru's judiciary. David Shearer for the Labour Party stressed that we cannot afford to sidestep this issue. "Right now we are seeing Nauru stripped of basic human rights are freedoms. It's our responsibility to stand up for democracy and human rights in our region."

Outside government, a number of high-profile groups have expressed their consternation at recent events. These include, the New Zealand Law Society, and (last year) the New Zealand Bar Association and the Victorian Bar in Australia (read about this here.) Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has spoken to President Waqa, but claims that the situation in Nauru is an "internal" one to be interfered with. The government needless to say does not want to endanger the deal it brokered with Nauru on housing its refugee detention centre.

How will Julie Bishop and Murray McCully choose to respond?

Leading up to Minister McCully's conversation with Baron Waqa, Kiwi legal academics have written a letter urging McCully to take action, for instance, by threatening to withdraw New Zealand aid unless the situation improves. The academics emphasise the severity of the situation, doubtless preempting the government's reluctance to speak out where that might endanger our relationship with Australia. According to the 29 academics, the "dismantling of an effective judicature together with the silencing of the media, opposition and even ordinary citizens on Facebook means that the government of Nauru is now virtually immune from scrutiny of its actions." In a similar vein, David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, has expressed concern over legislative changes to the criminal law, stating, "These new laws could be used to muzzle dissenting opinions and deter human rights defenders, academics, journalists, students, politicians and civil society members." The situation in Nauru is critical. How the New Zealand and Australian governments respond will be closely observed by all those concerned about upholding the rule of law and constitutional freedoms in our region.

Useful Resources

Article on The Interpreter

Journeyman Pictures mini documentary

World News Australia report

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?