After the Christchurch terror attacks, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donned a hijab as she comforted the relatives of the 51 Muslims who were killed simply for practising their faith. The image spread across the world and she was lavished with international praise.
Yet her apparent turning away from the active erasure of China’s Uyghur Muslim minority population may undo that reputation. On Wednesday, New Zealand’s parliament backed away from calling what is happening in Xinjiang a “genocide,” opting instead for the watered-down language of “human rights breaches”.
But the evidence is clear. Genocide is happening in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs.
We have seen reports of forced sterilisation, forced labour and allegations of mass rape and torture in China against the Uyghur people. In March, an independent in-depth legal analysis by international human rights and law experts found the China’s activities in Xinjiang breached almost every aspect of the UN’s Genocide Convention. Last year, a white paper from within the Chinese Communist party (CCP) revealed clues of the scale of their forced labour camps: an average of 1.29 million workers a year went through “vocational training” between 2014 and 2019.
As a Kiwi who was born into armed conflict in Somalia and forced to become a refugee, I know first-hand the impact of war and do not want to see that happen. But it’s not just “westerners” or lackeys for the US who believe the situation in Xinjiang is an atrocity. Even Palau, one of the world’s smallest nations, is among the growing number of states refusing to bend to China’s aggression.
New Zealanders have always publicly prided themselves as standing up to giants when it matters most. And we have a longstanding tradition, which the Ardern government has explicitly embraced, of a values- and morals-based foreign policy.
When the Rainbow Warrior was bombed in Auckland in 1985, we took a strong stance against nuclear activities in the Pacific. We went nuclear-free even when it hurt our relationship with America, a global super-power. Our strong position against apartheid in South Africa made us one of the world’s leaders in moral-based foreign policy.
Yes, we might be a small country and strong trade relations mean New Zealand is vulnerable to retaliation from China. But ultimately it would be better for New Zealand to align with other like-minded states on this issue than to succumb to China’s economic might because it ultimately protects us from China’s increasing aggression and disregard for an international rules-based system.
How New Zealand will uphold its “values-based” foreign policy in the face of massive pressure from the CCP is becoming one of the biggest political – and moral – challenges of the Labour government.
But other small nations all around the world are also feeling vulnerable to China and it has not stopped them speaking out. States like Lithuania and Belgium have put forward and debated motions using the “genocide” language, even under threat of retaliation.
More than ten democratic nations have already passed parliamentary resolutions condemning China’s horrific human rights abuses in Xinjiang and introduced a range of responses, including anti-forced labour legislation. In April, British MPs voted to declare China was committing genocide against the Uyghur people. Britain and the EU have also taken action with the US and Canada to impose sanctions.
The International Court of Justice has ruled that all state parties to the Genocide Convention are obliged to ‘‘employ all means reasonably available to them, so as to prevent genocide so far as possible’’.
Domestic and international pressure has been mounting on New Zealand to adopt a stronger public position on China’s treatment of Uyghurs.
The Ardern government has raised some concerns about China’s behaviour in recent weeks, with speeches by Ardern and the foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, aiming subtle rebukes at China over CCP policy towards New Zealand and the Pacific, its lack of respect for the rules-based multilateral order, treatment of Hong Kong and the situation in Xinjiang. But the speeches may have been too subtle for many, and their importance got drowned out by the foreign minister speaking off-script about Five Eyes.
And ultimately their words are not enough; inaction, which appears to be what New Zealand has chosen, cannot be an option in the face of genocide.
Many people have invested their hopes in this Labour government. But so far our political leaders still seem to be taking it in the wrong direction.
The desire for good trading relations and concern against economic retaliation by China should not dictate New Zealand’s ability to publicly condemn human rights atrocities. Taking a strong stance against the human rights violations of China is not a geopolitical issue, it is a matter of principles and values. It is a matter of our common humanity.
Guled Mire is an award-winning creative, community advocate, policy adviser, Fulbright New Zealand scholar and fellow at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs.