Satellite picture of Xinjiang camps taken from Google Earth
The Importance of a Letter
  • Mon, 08/05/2019 - 19:36

Author:  Robert Ayson

In one of the more tasteful scenes from Team America, Hans Blix informs Kim Jong-Il that unless the UN inspection of North Korea’s nuclear facilities is granted full access “we will send you a letter and tell you how angry we are.” In the movie’s next scene, Blix ends up Kim’s sharktank. But letters can be influential in international relations. John Howard’s 1998 missive to BJ Habibie encouraged the Indonesian leader down a track that led to a hotly contested referendum which precipitated violence, an Australian-led intervention, and eventually East Timor’s independence.

Sitting somewhere in between these extremes is the recent letter from 22 countries to the President of the UN Human Rights Council raising serious concerns about “credible reports of arbitrary detention in large-scale places of detention, as well as widespread surveillance and restrictions, particularly targeting Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang China.” New Zealand is one of those signatories. I think that’s a pretty big deal for Wellington’s China policy. 

Why so? Two reasons stand out. First this is a rare example of New Zealand being willing in a publically available document to add its voice to growing concerns about the miscarriage of human injustice that is being meted out to the Uighur Muslim minority on a colossal scale. Until now, including during Jacinda Ardern’s whistle stop visit to Beijing, we have been assured that New Zealand has been raising concerns about developments in Xinjiang with China’s leaders. But these efforts have been in private meetings. We have not had access to the content of these concerns. We have had to take the word of our leaders that they have raised them. This leaves room for skeptics to wonder whether and what is actually being said. The letter is different. New Zealand’s concerns, shared with 21 other members of the UN, are now visible. That makes them undeniable. They are policy.

Second, while the New Zealand government did not broadcast the existence of this collective message, it would know that news of its support for the letter would have been bound to get out. This provides journalists and others with clear opportunities to confirm New Zealand’s explicit position. At a recent press conference New Zealand’s and Australia’s Foreign Ministers were asked why both countries had signed the letter. "Because we believe in human rights, we believe in freedom and we believe in the liberty of personal beliefs and the right to hold them," came the response from Winston Peters. With each small step a more public New Zealand position is emerging.

This letter itself has certainly had an impact, at least in the sense that Beijing has noticed it. China’s reputation had been “slandered and smeared” said the Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Rather without coincidence, news of a counter-letterfrom 37 countries endorsing China’s policies in Xinjiang soon emerged. That number has now apparently risen to 50. Beijing is clearly seeking to show that its critics are in the minority. That so many of the supporters are from the developing world while most of New Zealand’s fellow signatories are from Europe (alongside Australia, Canada, and Japan) may raise the risk of an west versus the rest problem.

But being in the company of 21 like-mindeds on human rights may offer New Zealand some safety in numbers against worries that Beijing might push back in a more material fashion. Norway’s experience, where it was shut out for 6 yearsfrom trade talks with China following the award of a Nobel Prize to a famous dissident, demonstrates the vulnerability that can come from going it alone.

That may be one reason not to expect a rush of foreign policy speeches from Ardern and Peters brimming over with remonstrations against China’s human rights practices. But New Zealand now has an undeniable public position that China has not been living up to its obligations to what the letter refers to as “human rights and fundamental freedoms.” The issue has added international importance because China has a bigger capacity than most countries to shape global opinion and global standards. As Hedley Bull once argued, being a great power comes with “special duties” as well as “special rights.” And New Zealand would have been failing to live up to its international responsibilities as a small but principled actor had it kept its efforts to what Beijing prefers: ie quiet diplomacy behind closed doors. What is happening in Xinjiang is too much of a moral crisis for that. 

Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

Image: Satellite picture of Xinjiang camps taken from Google Earth