Malcolm McKinnon: NZ human rights diplomacy and East Asia

Malcolm McKinnon: NZ human rights diplomacy and East Asia


On 18 November 2020 New Zealand, in conjunction with four other governments, those of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, issued a statement condemning the imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong, which is seen as ‘part of a concerted campaign to silence all critical voices in Hong Kong.’

On Human Rights Day (10 December, the 72nd anniversary of the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights) it is timely to reflect on the place of human rights in New Zealand foreign policy and in particular in its diplomacy towards East and Southeast Asia, where the struggles in Hong Kong have had the greatest impact.

Will New Zealand match the statement on Hong Kong with statements directed at other Asian states that have breached human rights as it asserts China has in Hong Kong?

It won’t be easy.  Many Asian governments – among them countries with which New Zealand is aligned  – are more obligation- than rights-focused on matters of citizen-state relations. Clause 6 of the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which speaks of rights being balanced with duties, is indicative.

Understandably then, human rights are absent in discussion on New Zealand’s regional (Indo-Pacific) strategy in the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s current Strategic Intentions document. There is reference to the ‘rule of law’, but as China has been quick to point out, its National Security Law for Hong Kong  is just that – a law – suggesting that ‘rule of law’ is not a fail-safe benchmark where human rights are concerned.

Neither consideration should be a barrier to promoting human rights however. A brief review of three human rights domains can identify ways forward, as well as some pitfalls. Space does not permit discussion of other important areas, notably environment, migrant and asylum-seeker and gender rights.


Political and civil rights

The statement on Hong Kong, made as it is by five ‘Anglo-Saxon’ powers, tacitly frames political human rights as a Western export to the rest of the world.  But Asians have their own vigorous history and experience of human rights and democracy.

Protestors in Hong Kong drew succour from democratic transitions in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia. The ‘milk-tea’ alliance has linked Thai democracy activists with their opposite numbers in Hong Kong and Taiwan.  FORSEA, Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia, is a vigorous regional human rights lobby. And in 2019 a group of Indonesian scholars published robust critiques of the limitations of the ASEAN human rights mechanism.

New Zealand could do worse than stress, diplomatically, the ‘Asian-ness’ of democracy and dissent. The incorporation in the CPTPP of provisions on labour and environmental standards sets a precedent for promoting human rights provisions in other regional agreements or understandings.


Economic rights

The five power statement focused on civil and political, not economic and social rights. Two covenants, not a single one, were crafted to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

That outcome speaks to Cold War rivalries and to an enduring debate about rights. Which was the more important human right – the right not to starve or the right to be ‘free’? Communist countries suppressed political rights but put immense efforts into overcoming mass deprivation: China frequently describes its greatest contribution to human rights as the bringing of 700 million of its people out of poverty. Does New Zealand disagree?


Ethnic and religious minority rights

Human rights are just that – ‘human’ rights, but the United Nations system delegates their protection and advance to member states.

In no respect are states so jealous of sovereignty as in matters of territorial unity. Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, is a case in point.

Minorities may be protected, but even a hint of separatism is treated harshly, whether the regime be authoritarian. democratic or a mixture of the two.

New Zealand governments have made efforts to deal fairly with the rights of the indigenous Maori population but the circumstance of a single indigenous people occupying a single national territory is not replicated anywhere in Asia.

In drawing attention to breaches of human rights of peoples within a national territory, be they Uyghurs, Tibetans, Myanmar minorities, Pattani or Mindanao Muslims, West Papuans or indeed, the people of Hong Kong, it is as wise to acknowledge national sovereignty as it is to advocate for the minority population.

As Australian Uyghur and Xinjiang expert David Brophy pointed out in an interview with the Asia Media Centre in July 2019, ‘the type of positive change that Xinjiang needs can only come from within China. At a certain point it is going to require more ordinary Chinese people developing sympathy for the Uyghur people.’ That understanding holds for ethnic minority rights across the region.

The five-power statement on Hong Kong supported human rights in Hong Kong. But the exclusively outsider status of the five governments, the focus of the statement on civil and political rights and the absence (except by inference) of any recognition of Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong, limits its efficacy for the promotion of human rights across East and Southeast Asia.

New Zealand support for human rights in the region will be enhanced to the extent that it demonstrates acknowledgement of and familiarity with all facets of the region’s human rights landscape.


Malcolm McKinnon is a Wellington historian and writer on international relations. He is the author of number of monographs including New Zealand and ASEAN: a history (Asia New Zealand Foundation 2016)


This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.