As officials ask the public for their views on their plans to better control the export of sensitive goods overseas, there are fears the government is “putting the cart before the horse” by delaying legislative reform.
Proposals to ensure kiwifruit exporters do not contribute to human rights abuses overseas have received a mixed response, with praise in some quarters, but one MP says the government should act faster on more significant legislative changes.
In February last year, 1 News reported that Air New Zealand serviced equipment for the Saudi Navy as it took part in the blockade of Yemen, cutting off the country’s food and medicine supply.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade later confirmed that it had told the airline it did not need permits for the exports in question, and commissioned a review of its export control regime. amid broader concerns about goods destined for military regimes accused of wrongdoing.
The review, published in July last year, concluded that while foreign affairs officials had implemented the scheme in accordance with existing law and policy, the framework itself fell short of best practice in several areas and was “unsuited to what is likely to be an increasingly difficult future”.
The ministry is currently consulting on a number of planned changes to address some of the review’s recommendations, including the adoption of a “statement of purpose”, changes to assessment criteria described as an impractical scale” and the introduction of a new transparency regime.
The proposed statement of purpose states that the scheme’s intention is “to control the export of military and dual-use goods and technology from Aotearoa to New Zealand, as well as certain other goods for the military, to the police and other end users, which may contribute to the detriment of our security or our national interests or to human rights violations, or contravene international humanitarian law”.
The number of criteria to be taken into account in each application for an export permit has been reduced to six, with the inclusion of a specific assessment to determine whether the export would damage New Zealand’s reputation.
“Reliable evidence” collected by the ministry from its diplomatic posts abroad, reports from international bodies and intelligence from like-minded countries would be among the information used to assess the applications.
“Even if a proposed export does not violate international law or directly contribute to a gross violation of human rights, a refusal may still be appropriate to avoid a negative impact on the international reputation of Aotearoa New Zealand.”
A transparency plan outlined in the document includes proactive publication of information relating to the activities and operation of the export control regime, regular internal audits and periodic independent reviews.
Green Party foreign affairs spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman said the proposals appeared to be a delaying tactic to block work on the larger legislative changes that were needed.
While it was good to know that the ministry was ‘finally’ going ahead with some recommendations, Ghahraman said the new legislation would provide for a broader consultation process and the rigor of parliamentary debate, with policy changes coming next. by this legislative framework.
“Looks like they’re putting the cart before the horse…like a department that deprioritized this work after it fell off the media radar.”
It was important that consultation on the changes reached those in the communities most affected by the decision to grant export permits, such as New Zealanders in the Middle East in the case of the Air New Zealand scandal.
“Sometimes it’s not whether it’s clearly in black or white, and sometimes with subjects in gray, just to protect your reputation, you don’t go.”
– Al Gillespie, professor of law at the University of Waikato
Al Gillespie, a professor of international law at the University of Waikato, told Newsroom that the changes would be “a step in the right direction” if they were all implemented, and provided further evidence that the government does not had not brushed aside the concerns of critics of the status quo.
Although the review found that those applying the rules had not necessarily done anything wrong, the guidelines needed to be changed to reflect what was increasingly important to New Zealanders – including the reputation of the country.
“Sometimes it’s not whether it’s clearly black or white, and sometimes with subjects in gray, just to protect your reputation, you don’t go.”
Gillespie said the emphasis on transparency was important, as were the guidelines covering both human rights issues and violation of international humanitarian law.
He supported changes being made now rather than waiting for legislation, as New Zealand’s engagement with external partners would increase in coming years as defense policy changed, but said that a new law had to be put in place.
Modification of the “longer-term objective” law
Oxfam Aotearoa’s director of advocacy and communications, Dr Jo Spratt, said the organization was pleased to see progress made following the independent review, including a move towards a “transparent approach explicit”.
“It is essential that the government continue on this trajectory to improve Aotearoa New Zealand’s ability to meet international human rights standards and prevent human rights abuses,” said Spratt.
The department said recommending a stand-alone law governing export controls is among the “longer-term goals”, due to the time needed to push the legislation forward and the constraints of the legislative agenda.
“We will consider legislative reform, including the possibility of stand-alone legislation covering export controls, following the implementation of these recommendations that can be advanced without legislation.”
In addition to the policy proposals, it has already created two new positions in its export control team and recruited experienced staff to “manage the workload and mitigate the risk that knowledge resides in a key specialist”.