On returning this week from his trade mission in the Middle East, John Key stated on Breakfast TV that countries such as Saudi Arabia have views of human rights that are â€œdifferentâ€ from our own, justifying the governmentâ€™s decision to exclude human rights issues from any trade agreement that New Zealand is able to secure in the region. That is putting it rather mildly. Saudi Arabia has one of the consistently worst human records in the world. While the mainstream media is quick to focus in on a discriminatory gender regime that bans women from driving and requires them to be covered from head-to-toe, such problems pale in comparison to the treatment of the foreign workers who make up at least a third of the countryâ€™s population, or the torture, imprisonment, and death sentences handed down to Christian converts, human rights workers, activists, journalists, and other critics of the ruling elite. Unlike the distinctly Saudi approach to gender relations, it is difficult to see how the Saudis themselves could seriously attempt to justify such severe human rights abuses in religious or cultural terms.
What is especially surprising about the Prime Ministerâ€™s statement is that, if he genuinely believes that Saudi Arabian understandings of human rights are â€œdifferentâ€ rather than simply wrong, this would put him far over on the fringes of moral philosophy into the cultural relativist camp. This is a space occupied only by academic extremists who have followed the logics of social constructionism to their absolute and final conclusions (i.e. there is no such thing as truth, which makes it rather hard to speak truth to power as many of these theorists seem to want to do), or a small minority on the extreme right, which proposes that liberal values can only ever be achieved in supposedly superior Western cultures. Sticking to this line of argument means that anything whatsoever can be justified in cultural terms to the point where, essentially, nothing practised by any society at any point in history can be criticised at all. What strange company for a Mr. Moderate who usually tries to avoid coming to any conclusions that could undermine his apparently undying popularity to be found in.
Furthermore, this is not the generally shared understanding most reasonable people have of these issues. In fact, New Zealand, along with just about every other country in the world, is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the wake of the horrors of World War Two and aimed at establishing a basic set of rights and liberties that countries should do their very best to uphold. Least it isnâ€™t clear from the title of the Declaration, most of the world believes that human rights are universal, Mr. Key, not particular.
Saudi Arabia, by the way, does not accept these principles, rejecting the Declaration on the grounds that guaranteeing freedom of religion would be detrimental to the countryâ€™s own traditions, and that its own version of Islamic law supposedly upholds a higher threshold of human rights than this or any other international agreement. By far the more important point, however, is that New Zealand is itself a signatory to the Universal Declaration, which not only obligates us to ensuring that we uphold basic human rights within our own borders, but also to promote human rights abroad.
Yet when it comes to trade agreements, the explicit approach adopted by both recent centre-right and centre-left governments has been to exclude human rights from the negotiating agenda. This puts us at odds with the other members of the international â€œclubâ€ we belong to, to use another of the Prime Ministerâ€™s terms. Based on academic research, the World Trade Organization states that about 75 percent of contemporary trade agreements include human rights clauses, whether binding or non-binding, driven largely by the human rights promotion agenda of Canada, the European Union, and yes, the United States. It obviously cannot be assumed that these clauses always lead to substantive improvements in human rights outcomes, but they are a start.
The real reason behind both National and Labourâ€™s exclusion of human rights concerns from the negotiation of trade deals is two-fold. Firstly, to state the obvious, New Zealand is very small in global terms, and thus cannot exercise much leverage over larger countries in the Asia and the Middle East. When countries are dependent on us for aid, absolutely do we try to influence human rights, most notably in the Pacific (which also occasionally invokes issues of culture and human rights that I donâ€™t intend to get into here). Realistically, if we are to incorporate human rights concerns into our trade relations framework, this might more successful if done through multilateral arrangementsâ€”yet is it difficult to see human rights becoming a major concern of the kind of multilateral trade deals that New Zealand has wedded itself to, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Secondly, the bipartisan approach reveals not only a deep ideological commitment to free trade that is not necessarily shared by other developed countries, in which the influence of large protectionist interest groups often moderates that stance, but a rather naÃ¯ve belief that trade deals and trade relationships can be separated from everything else. Despite good empirical and historical evidence that trade cannot be viewed independently from other aspects of foreign policy, we do this with regard to our security relations, in which government officials cannot see the long-term problem emerging out of the contradiction between an Asia-oriented trade policy and a Five Eyes-oriented security one, and we also apparently do it when it comes to more noble causes.
So herein lies the hypocrisy not only of our current leadership, but all those sectors of our community who stress trade above all other national goals. We tend to have a rather rosy view of our country not only as an independent voice in the international arena, but as a progressive force in the big wide world. We ban nuclear ships and we save whales. We were the first to give women the vote and at least some of protested against the Springbok Tour. We think we deserve a seat on the Security Council because we are nice (alternatively, to carry on the theme, there are those who no doubt think it will help us out on the trade front). Not caringâ€”or pretending not to careâ€” about the worst instances of human rights abuses, however, not only threatens to undermine this aspect of our national identity, but undermines both our reputation and potential as a global player that punches above our weight on moral issues.