Update, July 1: National MP Gerry Brownlee’s Autonomous Sanctions Bill has just been drawn from the member’s ballot and will go to a first reading in Parliament, after the Government dropped its own legislation from the order paper. In this piece from March, Sam Sachdeva writes about how New Zealand’s inability to impose our own sanctions in Xinjiang, among other places, poses some uncomfortable questions

Four years after Chinese authorities are alleged to have begun detaining Uyghur Muslims, global concern about the plight of the minority population shows no signs of subsiding.

The United Nations is currently negotiating with Beijing to secure an unrestricted visit to the country’s Xinjiang province, the site of the mass detention centres, where reported restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, forced labour and forced birth control have been labelled by some international lawyers as amounting to genocide.

The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union last week imposed coordinated sanctions against current and former Chinese officials in relation to Xinjiang.

In a joint statement last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and her Australian counterpart Marise Payne praised the sanctions, the pair saying they “share[d] these countries’ deep concerns, which are held across the New Zealand and Australian communities”.

Conspicuous by its absence was the announcement of any similar trans-Tasman sanctions against the officials involved, the ministers instead emphasising “the importance of transparency and accountability” and calling on the Chinese government to give United Nations officials unfettered access to Xinjiang.

In Australia’s case, The Guardian reported Scott Morrison’s government was planning to release draft legislation later this year giving it so-called “Magnitsky-style” powers to target individuals for human rights abuses (named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian whistleblower whose 2009 death in prison led the US to pass sanctions legislation in his name).

But while our trans-Tasman neighbour is looking to upgrade the autonomous sanctions regime it already has in place, New Zealand lacks any standalone legislation in that space, only able to implement sanctions adopted by the United Nations – and appears disinclined to pursue the matter.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has said the Government does not see a need for autonomous sanctions legislation. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

An autonomous sanctions bill introduced in mid-2017 by the National government languished on the order paper for more than three years before it was killed off after last year’s election – leading one law professor to dub it arguably ”the least successful piece of legislation in New Zealand history”.

National has agitated for the law to be reintroduced, but Mahuta told Stuff she had no such plans “because we do rely primarily on the United Nations as our guide to inform at the highest level what action can be taken”.

Taken at face value, that is an entirely sensible approach: indeed, one of New Zealand’s enduring foreign policy principles has been the importance of multilateral frameworks and the rules-based order.

But those ideals are complicated by the reality of the veto powers wielded by the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, which stymie all but the most uncontroversial of sanctions.

As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade noted in 2017, New Zealand’s other Five Eyes partners all possess the ability to impose sanctions outside of the UN regime, with “a growing risk of New Zealand being perceived as an easy target because of gaps in the range of sanction measures able to be imposed”.

While governments had been able to impose a more limited range of sanction-type measures through different laws, such as refusing entry visas and expelling diplomats, those were “not seen, either here or by our like-minded partners, as being sufficient to address situations of real concern” – a perception which may have only increased in recent years.

There is an element of realpolitik that must be taken into account when considering the effects of such legislation.

Putting the idea in the too-hard basket, and leaving New Zealand without a means to take sufficient action over human rights abuses in other nations, could see our own reputation called into question by others.

For one, there is the probable blowback from imposing sanctions without a wide-ranging alliance behind you: the Chinese government announced countermeasures against American, Canadian and European figures in response to the latest Xinjiang sanctions.

Then there is the risk that once you have such a weapon in your diplomatic arsenal, you are increasingly called upon to use it in situations where it might be more convenient to claim your hands are tied.

That is an understandable reservation, but one which does not mesh well with Jacinda Ardern’s advocacy for a values-based foreign policy since taking office.

Asked by media on Monday whether the Government needed to take greater action over Xinjiang, the Prime Minister argued she and others had made a point of raising human rights concerns directly with Beijing.

“We are entirely predictable in the way we’re dealing with this issue: when we see a concern that we have, we raise it and we raise it directly.”

But predictability should not preclude more powerful actions, when the circumstances require it.

The old legislation was far from perfect, and would likely need a rewrite to provide stronger safeguards and accountability mechanisms.

But simply putting the idea in the too-hard basket, and leaving New Zealand without a means to take sufficient action over human rights abuses in other nations, could see our own reputation called into question by others.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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