Thirty-five years after New Zealand dared to raise its voice through its nuclear-free policy
and independent foreign policy we are once again facing pressure to be herded back into the fold of a western military alliance.
The vehicle being used this time is the erstwhile intelligence gathering and sharing club known as “Five Eyes” consisting of the USA, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Media commentary in the UK such as a recently reported piece in the Daily Mail have excoriated this country for its allegedly weak stance on confronting China.
The nub of this claim is the recent speech of our Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta re-stating New Zealand’s independent stance and refusing to join Five Eyes as a platform for our foreign relations including human rights protection.
In other words, deftly avoiding entanglement in an alliance by extension of Five Eyes by stealth into areas well beyond its original ambit.
At the same time, Minister Mahuta emphasised New Zealand’s readiness to criticise China on its own account as indeed was evidenced recently when it criticised China’s suppression of freedoms in its self-governing territory of Hong Kong.
The claim by Five Eyes that it is any type of bandwagon for promoting human rights is the very height of hypocrisy.
Let’s not forget that the most powerful member of the club, the USA, has gone to considerable lengths to persecute whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden and imprison others such as Chelsea Manning for exposing illegal surveillance and acts constituting serious abuses of human rights.
Snowden’s expose revealed existence of the most pervasive system of global surveillance ever conceived through back doors into the servers of internet platforms and communications routers. It also bared the operation of a secretive foreign intelligence surveillance court (FISA) with warrants processes reminiscent of those of the East German stasi.
Our participation in this spy network has also exposed us to allegations of complicity in human rights abuses by Five Eyes partners.
For example, a 2019 Report of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Cheryl Gwyn, into New Zealand intelligence agencies information sharing and engagement with the CIA in connection with the latter’s detention and interrogation program from 2001 to 2009 was critical of the rules under which intelligence cooperation with Five Eyes partners had taken place. It found significant gaps in the Ministerial Policy Statement issued under the previous Government such as lack of clarity as to the obtaining or use of information tainted by torture.
The Inspector General’s Report highlighted that the degree to which the agencies interacted with the CIA programme and the safeguards that existed against the agencies’ complicity in acts of torture goes to the heart of whether New Zealanders can have confidence the intelligence agencies act lawfully and in accord with this country’s international obligations.
Last year, mainly due to Covid-19 the Government re-issued the previous Government’s protocols on intelligence sharing with a review still to come. It is suggested this is now well overdue. If we are thrown out of Five Eyes as a consequence this is a price worth paying.
Criticism that New Zealand has put trade interests ahead of loyalty to the Five Eyes partners misses the point that the other partners are unlikely to compensate us for any loss of any trade advantages. It also misses the point that in the 21st Century military power has been replaced by economic soft power as the main lever of foreign policy.
New Zealand has grasped this to its advantage.
If anything, standing on our own feet foreign policy wise strengthens our position when we do speak out as this country did recently in relation to Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uighur population in China.
It will be taken more seriously than when we simply parrot – pun intended – the “party line” of the Five Eyes Club.
We should stick to our guns and refuse Five Eyes to dictate our foreign policy.
• Gehan Gunasekara is an Associate Professor in Commercial Law at the University of Auckland and chair of Privacy Foundation New Zealand. The views expressed are his own.
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