A week or so ago I had a coffee with Joanne Wilkes. She’s an almost-retired University of Auckland English professor, an expert on Jane Austen, George Eliot and female writers whose recognition has faded.
And for more than 30 years she’s spent a decent chunk of her spare time writing letters to foreign leaders – presidents, prime ministers, chief justices, ambassadors – putting pressure on overseas governments to uphold human rights and release prisoners of conscience.
The day we spoke, Wilkes had had some good news. Philippines Nobel Peace Prize winner and journalist Maria Ressa, the subject of an intensive and high-profile international letter-writing campaign, including by Wilkes’ group at Amnesty International NZ, had been acquitted on four of a number of allegedly politically motivated and trumped-up charges that could see her go to jail and her independent news site Rappler get shut down.
Ressa hasn’t yet dispensed with the bail money she carries with her everywhere in case of arrest and the ‘go bag’, with clothes and a toothbrush in her car. But it’s one step towards that.
But Wilkes, who got involved with Amnesty International in 1988 when she copied a phone number for a group meeting in Auckland off a notice board outside a bakery, is cautiously optimistic.
She has written monthly letters about Ressa’s situation for more than 18 months; over the past three decades she’s written hundreds and hundreds of letters about other cases.
And there have been other recent wins: after years of campaigning, an octogenarian Japanese man who spent 45 years on death row accused of murder now looks almost certain to get a retrial; a global Amnesty International petition and other action led to Fifa this month dropping plans for the national tourism board of Saudi Arabia to sponsor the 2023 Women’s football world cup in New Zealand and Australia; huge support for trans rights as gender activist Posie Parker was chased out of the country.
But there was also bad news.
Apparently out of the blue this week, the Government introduced an amendment to the Immigration Act which allows the Government to lock up a group of asylum seekers arriving by boat for 28 days, without them being able to challenge that detention.
At the moment the limit is four days.
Immigration Minister Michael Wood said the changes would “ensure those seeking asylum will have access to adequate legal representation by extending the period that a decision is required to be made by”.
He appeared to be suggesting a mass boat arrival would stretch immigration resources to such an extent that locking asylum seekers up would be for their own good.
That’s rubbish, says Amnesty International campaign director Lisa Woods, who tells Newsroom the move is “deeply concerning”. Not only does locking up asylum seekers carry a strong likelihood of harm for potentially traumatised refugees seeking asylum in New Zealand, but also “it arguably sets a dangerous precedent about how the government deals with resource pressures in the legal system”.
At present, the police have very limited powers to hold people without a warrant. But if it were legal to hold asylum seekers for a month to get the Government out of a tight spot, you could imagine a situation where other laws might be changed because the legal process was under stress.
“The answer is to better resource the system, rather than diminish human rights,” Woods says.
She says it’s frustrating the Government has introduced a piece of legislation to cover an unlikely scenario (no migrant boats have ever reached New Zealand) when other bits of legislation – hate speech, for example – have been canned in the run-up to the election.
The issue of asylum seekers being put in prison is one human rights activists have been fighting for several years. An Amnesty report in 2021, ‘Please take me to a safe place: The imprisonment of asylum seekers in Aotearoa New Zealand’, sparked an independent review by Victoria Casey KC released last year. That report described the current system under the Immigration Act as “a recipe for arbitrary detention” and said “the features all combine to present a grim picture of how New Zealand is treating people who claim asylum”.
“Society uses [prison] as its most serious form of punishment for its most serious offenders,” Casey wrote. “Refugee claimants have neither committed nor been charged with any criminal offending, and have done nothing to warrant a penalty at all, let alone one of this severity … There is no suggestion from my review that any of the 100 or so asylum seekers detained since 2015 would have posed the sort of threat to public safety or risk to national security that could warrant such restrictive measures.
“The most obvious, and most important, alternative to detention in a Corrections facility is for the refugee claimant not to be detained at all.”
Since the Casey report, asylum seekers are no longer detained. “Campaigning does work,” Woods says.
Lisa Woods says there had been no indication the Government was planning to toughen up detention legislation around possible mass arrivals of refugees by boat before the announcement earlier this week.
Amnesty International is planning a public campaign once the bill gets to select committee, though there’s no timing on that as yet.
This isn’t an isolated problem, she says. “Human rights is a huge issue in New Zealand. We are doing a lot of work around the criminal justice system, and the nature of human rights issues is staggering.”
Amnesty International keeps an eye out for reports from the Independent Corrections Inspectorate and from the Ombudsman, and “often the details are deeply problematic”, Woods says.
For example there was the case of use of force against inmates at the Auckland women’s prison, which sparked a review.
Amnesty International has 40,000 local members, she says, a mix of financial supporters and active members. And support is growing, in New Zealand and internationally.
Figures for 2022 are still being collated, but the number of people taking action rose in 2021, and Amnesty’s global Write for Rights campaign resulted in 1 million more actions taken last year than the year before.
And direct action works, she says.
“Sometimes when you look at the scale of the human rights issues, it seems insurmountable, but people power can and does push politicians.”
Just this week, “the mahi from the people who were involved in the Posie Parker counterprotest – that was an incredible show of support from the community”.
It’s the same with overseas campaigns. Joanne Wilkes says she and another NZ campaigner just received a letter from the presidential palace in Manilla in response to their letters.
“When you get acknowledgement, that could be a sign of hope. But even when the leaders don’t answer, you know they get the letters. Then they know the world is watching.”
Disclosure: Nikki Mandow is a long-time supporter of Amnesty International