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Left: US soldiers at the Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad, 2003. (Photo:  John L. Houghton via Wikipedia). Right: Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike on Rafah camp (Photo by Khames Alrefi via Getty).
Left: US soldiers at the Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad, 2003. (Photo: John L. Houghton via Wikipedia). Right: Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike on Rafah camp (Photo by Khames Alrefi via Getty).

PoliticsMay 31, 2024

Has plucky New Zealand lost its voice on international issues?

Left: US soldiers at the Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad, 2003. (Photo:  John L. Houghton via Wikipedia). Right: Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike on Rafah camp (Photo by Khames Alrefi via Getty).
Left: US soldiers at the Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad, 2003. (Photo: John L. Houghton via Wikipedia). Right: Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike on Rafah camp (Photo by Khames Alrefi via Getty).

This week an Israeli airstrike killed dozens of refugees in Rafah, and our government has done and said next to nothing in response. What happened to New Zealand’s stance on human rights?

In 1984, we banned nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships from entering New Zealand waters. The US and France hated us, but it was the right and moral thing to do and something we still proudly remember.

In 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq, we refused to join or support the invasion. Looking back 20 years later, former prime minister Helen Clark said it was “no time for weasel words,” although president George Bush had been “somewhat frosty” towards her.

These are the instances that loom large in our collective memory when New Zealand considers its own role in the international arena. In them, we’re a plucky little country, sticking up for what’s right, even when it goes against our allies and big global powers. Those other countries may have been peeved at the time, but time has proven us, little old New Zealand at the bottom of the world, right. We are the virtuous heroes.

Person holding banner saing 'Nuclear weapons not welcome' on a little boat in front of a large boat
An image that stirs patriotism even in the coldest New Zealand hearts – a protest in 1988. (Photo: Greenpeace).

But this week, Israel bombed a refugee camp in Rafah, within a designated “safe zone” where displaced Palestinians were living. At least 45 people, including children, were killed on Sunday 26 May – and Israel continues to ramp up its attacks in the city. The first airstrike came just days after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered Israel immediately halt its military offensive in Rafah – a ruling that Israel has completely ignored. The refugee camp bombing is exactly the sort of human rights catastrophe that is worth condemnation and loud protest, but the New Zealand government was quiet. There was nothing, apart from a mild statement on X from foreign minister Winston Peters:

“New Zealand has been clear all along that military operations into Rafah would be catastrophic. But Israel continues to strike Rafah and is causing horrific civilian consequences.

“Israel must listen to the appeals of the international community and the International Court of Justice for an immediate halt to its military offensive in Rafah. And Hamas, which committed heinous terrorist acts on 7 October 2023, should long ago have released all hostages.  

“We reiterate our calls for an immediate ceasefire.”

The statement wasn’t published as a press release and isn’t to be found on any other official channel. No other ministers spoke out. When prime minister Christopher Luxon was asked on Tuesday what actions the government would take in response to the assault on Rafah, he said “we expect Israel to be compliant with the ICJ ruling” – which is not a concrete action and had already proven not to have happened.

So has New Zealand lost its bravery and voice on important international issues?

Children play along a slope near a camp housing displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on April 30, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)
The camp in Rafah on April 30 2024 before the airstrikes in May. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images).

“With respect to the current situation, we’re not showing a comparable consistency,” says Robert Patman, international relations professor in the University of Otago’s politics department. He sees the situation in Rafah as a blatant disregard for the rule of law, as well as an urgent humanitarian crisis. What one would expect for a law abiding state, like New Zealand, is to publicly say to Israel and the United States, you can’t simply pick and choose which international laws you want to support.”

New Zealand has historically been a strong stickler for the international rules-based order, no matter which party is heading the government. “We believe in international relations based on principles and rules, not power,” says Patman. International laws are something we strongly depend on, he says, because we trade with more than 100 countries around the world, and “we are not big enough or privileged enough to be able to rearrange the rules in our favour”.

It’s not that we have completely forgotten our values since October 7 2023, when a Hamas attack on Israeli citizens led to the invasion of Gaza. New Zealand broke with many of our allies on October 27 to vote for an immediate humanitarian truce at the UN general assembly. Then on December 12 we co-sponsored a resolution to the general assembly demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. In February we banded together with Australia and Canada to demand an immediate ceasefire again. In April, foreign minister Winston Peters called the situation in Gaza an “utter catastrophe” in a speech to the UN general assembly. 

Winston Peters at a podium, with the UN logo in the top right corner.
On April 9 2024, Winston Peters addressed the UN general assembly calling the situation in Gaza an “utter catastrophe” and critiqued the repeated use of veto in the UN security council.

“Diplomatically, New Zealand is doing the right thing, but it’s not being very vocal about it,” says Patman. “I think, Mr Peters, the statements he’s made have been quite sensible, and he made a hard hitting speech at the UN general assembly… but we’re having long periods of silence.”

He says the reticence could be down to a reluctance to upset the US. But Patman considers this wariness misplaced. “Is the US considering New Zealand’s feelings when it does not uphold international law? Is it? It’s not.” He points out that this government has pledged to have a closer alignment with what it calls our traditional allies – the US and UK among them – and the reason they’d cite for this is that they share our values. “But the problem is, there are signs in the last six months that the United States’ commitment to the values we thought it held, has diminished.” Why? “Because it is providing arms to a country which has almost certainly committed war crimes.” 

Patman thinks that standing up to the US does not necessarily mean turning against them, nor cutting diplomatic ties. Rather, “friendship must involve honesty and candour. If you’re a true friend, and you see a friend taking steps which undermine itself, you often point that out to the friend so they avoid embarrassing themselves or others.”

Jeremy Moses, senior lecturer in political science at the University of Canterbury, is unsurprised by the government’s reluctance to speak up loudly on Rafah. “I don’t think that this current, ‘softly, softly’ approach to criticism of Israel is unexpected. I don’t think that it gestures towards a very significant change in New Zealand’s foreign policy,” he says. While our reputation and self-perception has been built on our anti-nuclear stance and refusal to take part in the Iraq invasion, they were ultimately exceptions to our overarching foreign policy. “I think that there’s not really a long, sustained pattern of New Zealand behaving in a very independent way in its relationship with the United States, with Australia and with other European powers in the Five Eyes Alliance. I think sometimes that’s overstated.” Moses points to a range of other international conflicts, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, in which New Zealand has been willing to participate alongside our allies.

While Peters and Luxon have made “very tepid criticism” of Israel’s actions in Rafah, Moses thinks their approach shows what a difficult position they find themselves in. “There’s these horrific graphic scenes of people being bombed and children being blown apart, essentially, and this has been broadcast around the world, on a daily basis. We’re reaching a point where saying nothing is becoming really untenable.” There’s more than one viewpoint amongst New Zealanders though. Moses has seen people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade singled out and targeted for online harassment by Zionist lobby groups like the Israel Institute. “That feeds into that fear around being strongly critical of Israel,” he says.

But while government officials may criticise Israel when necessary, he doesn’t expect we will be hearing any direct criticism of the US “mild or otherwise”. It’s revealing, he says, of the fact we are not as independent from Washington as we’d like to think. In a “deep and durable” relationship, we assume the US is who we go with on security and defence matters. “Whether we think of it as a kind of Anglo club, like the Five Eyes Alliance, where you have all of the Anglophone countries that are coming together and sharing intelligence, I think that’s become very central to New Zealand’s security and foreign policy over several decades now.”

One change in foreign policy Moses does expect is “a much closer security, defence military relationship with the United States and Australia” than we might otherwise have had under a Labour government. It’s not necessarily something he supports. “I woke up this morning and looked at the media. And the first thing I see is Nikki Haley, someone who’s considered by many people to be a serious presidential candidate, writing ‘finish them’ on a [Israeli] bomb. Once American politics has reached this level and yet there is still no willingness to think about whether a close connection with the politics of that state is a good thing for our country – that’s very telling.”

Children gathered around twisted and burnt corrogated iron
Palestinians gather at the site of an Israeli strike in Rafah, May 26, 2024. (Photo by KHAMES ALREFI/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

A strategy document by MFAT published last year said that internationally, New Zealand holds mana and credibility for its commitment to human rights, equality and freedom, and for its belief in and adherence to the rule of law. Patman says that the situation in Palestine gives NZ an opportunity to stand up for those values and commitments, but softly worded statements won’t cut it. He points out that Ireland is another small country – but one that didn’t wait for someone else to take the lead, and is instead speaking up and recognising Palestine as a state.

“I do think New Zealand shouldn’t underestimate its standing in the world to speak on tough issues,” says Patman. “We eventually gained a lot of admiration on both the non-nuclear issue and on the issue of the Iraq invasion. It’s important when something is clearly wrong, that we are true to our values and say, ‘stop it, let’s put this right.’ If you remain silent, then you become complicit.”

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