Syrian crisis shows no major players should be trusted

Around lunch time yesterday (N.Z.T.), France, Britain and the United States launched strikes against chemical weapon targets in Syria. The strikes which come after a chemical weapons attack against defenceless citizens in Douma a few days ago, have inflamed the rhetoric from both Moscow and Washington. But as we wait to see what kind of response Russia will make, it is also clear that the major media agencies in both countries have been far from freely dispensing the truth.

The only thing New Zealand should be relentlessly pushing aside from a truce of some sort is a neutral set of inspectors not from any U.N. Security Council country, being allowed to go in, unfettered and report direct to the Secretary General. I am specifically thinking or Switzerland or Sweden, New Zealand, Brazil and maybe Singapore – nations that are known for maintaining original foreign policy, but also crossing a diverse geographical and ethnic divide.

I do not trust the White House or the Kremlin. Nor do I trust RT or Fox. All of these networks have a degree of bias that undermines journalistic integrity. RT is known – by its own admission to talk direct to Kremlin. Its blind support of the incumbent suggests to me it potentially faces consequences if it writes an original thought. whilst Fox is a neo-conservative  channel that was established by Rupert Murdoch as a sort of light entertainment/news channel. The company they keep in terms of viewers and commentators in their comments section suggest a channel that supports war against Iran and North Korea, ignorant of the consequences and dismissive of anyone who raises a counter argument.

The spiels that the media feed the people, sometimes with a clear government spin, as is the case with Russia should be checked by a fact finder first. In the case of the suspect chemical weapon facilities in Syria, the French, British and Americans should have given the inspectors a chance to confirm them as chemical weapon facilities. Governments by default have the means to hide information so that it cannot be released. All Governments – western or otherwise have an agenda. Some are corrupted by money. Some have huge monetary resources to tap into.

In some respects Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reminds me of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Mr Castro became well known for his staunch anti-American rhetoric. Mr al-Assad might not be so staunch, but he is becoming well known for his contemptuous regard international norms and human rights. All of this has led me to wonder if he quietly agitates for a major strike by the United States so that Russia is somehow justified in a massive military retaliation – in order to deter the Americans from attacking Mr Castro got the U.S.S.R. to place medium range nuclear missiles on the island knowing there was no way the Americans would tolerate that kind of threat so close by. This is what triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The Russian ambassador to the United Nations tried to divert attention when confronted at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

New Zealand needs to stick to its instincts. As a nation the only assumption we should make is that this is far from over as a crisis and has the potential to get considerably worse.


Power games in South Pacific concern New Zealand

Every year there is an annual forum in the South Pacific called the Pacific Islands Forum. It is an opportunity for the nations of the South Pacific to meet and discuss issues of the day – be it climate change, security, the economic performance of the region or disaster relief.

Like other regions of the planet, the South Pacific has its own power games going on. These games are played at three different tiers with an interchange between them. At the top there are the major nations of New Zealand, Australia and now France – whose colonial outposts of French Polynesia (Tahiti, etc) and New Caledonia – have now joined the P.I.F. The mid tier are the ones with regional power, such as Fiji and Samoa, the Solomons and Papua New Guinea.

With climate change, the Frank Bainimarama dictatorship, China trying to muscle its way into South Pacific affairs and ongoing issues with socio-economic development there is plenty happening at the P.I.F. each year. In 2016 it is the turn of Commodore Frank Bainimarama, who is trying to suggest that Australia and New Zealand, the traditional power houses whose economic and political muscle could cripple his dictatorship effortlessly – or run the risk of turning ordinary Fiji’s ethnic divisions into something worse – should not have a place at the P.I.F.

To this end Commodore Bainimarama has been cultivating a group of smaller nations to form a sub forum as part of a power play against Australia and New Zealand. Commodore Bainimarama is playing on dangerous ground. His dictatorship is very sensitive to New Zealand and Australian media and would have known when it stripped the the Fijian Minister of Foreign Affairs of his role  and arrested Opposition Members of Parliament that this would anger the trans-Tasman neighbours.

Surprisingly New Zealand has not reacted strongly. Contrary to the strong reactions of 2000 and 2006 when moves to stifle democracy and freedom of speech in Fiji were met with outrage, the New Zealand Government seems content with tip toeing around the fringe of the issue. Despite Chinese interest in the region, this delicate movement of toes rather than feet has not had anything to do with Beijing’s quests for more natural resources to feed its vast economy.

With climate change threatening numerous smaller island members of the Forum, some of whom may disappear completely in the coming decades, any opportunity for China to develop more “friendly” ties with vulnerable atoll states should be watched with caution. By stepping up to the plate with a more aggressive climate change policy, New Zealand would be saying that it is aware of and respects the concerns of these small states, something it has thus far been rather lacklustre in.


France paying the price for being an imperial power

There was a time when to be a great national power meant having colonies under ones thumb. European powers such as Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium viewed them as a source of immense prestige. It meant having a powerful military that could colonize far away lands and turn them around to the ways of the colonizing power. The colonies were a source of raw materials, food and labour.

It would be an understatement to say that the people in the lands that were colonized were often very poorly treated. In the case of Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, the Hutu people were considered to have worse physical features than the Tutsi’s and were generally more poorly treated. This discrimination was one of the underlying causes of the massive blood letting that was the 1994 genocide.

That subjugated peoples fought back is no surprise at all, except to the Governors of the colonies, unable to understand how and why supposedly inferior peoples and cultures should be resisting. That the injustices committed, which the former imperial powers by and large refuse to acknowledge, should still be the source of angst two centuries later should not come as a surprise either – just like Europeans, these peoples have oral histories that passed on down stories of mistreatment, and instilled a quest for justice.

Now let us be very clear. Two wrongs have never made a right, and will not in the future. But when peoples trying to seek redress for long held injustices are systemically ignored, put down and sometimes even subjected to further injustice, no one should be surprised if resistance switches from diplomacy to armed confrontation.

After World War One, the British and French began a grand political experiment in the Middle East. They annexed the lands that would become Iraq and Syria and installed governors to oversee the birth of new colonies. With total disregard for the geographical boundaries of ethnic groups, lines in the baking sands became borders and the people within those borders became Iraqi’s and Syrians. They were expected to learn languages and have new ways imposed on them. Cultural norms were thrown out the window. Widespread resistance broke out across Syria which was not put down until 1927.

Colonization ended with the end of World War Two. A vast power vacuum began creeping into the colonies of the major World War Two participants who suddenly had much bigger problems than their far flung territories. In the case of French colonies, Algeria, Tunisia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and others, France has been reluctant to fully let go of them. It took the Japanese occupation to force the French to leave Cambodia and Laos. Their attempts to retake Vietnam ended in a military disaster at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 that characterised how the struggle in the Vietnam War would be fought.

Even today, France is still reluctant to stop interfering in the affairs of Algeria. Its intelligence agencies have been collaborating with Algerian authorities to arrest or crack down on the civil liberties of its civilians, causing some to seek asylum in other countries, including New Zealand, knowing that if they stay, they might be made to disappear.

The ordinary French civilian is in no way to blame for the horrors subjected to their nation and countrymen by Islamic State. For them this is a train wreck of horrors whose origins began to take shape before they were even born, and which might continue even after they die – without doubt a horrible thought, but one that is equally horribly realistic.

What is to blame are successive French Governments that have continued to interfere in the former French colonies, unsettling any democratically elected Governments that look like being resistant to French interests. These same French governments have failed to plan for the large scale immigration that has resulted from these countries remaining poor and unstable, thereby letting in over the course of decades, hundreds of people of undesirable character. They have then compounded this by failing to address concerns raised by French citizens, which has unfortunately led to the rise of the Front Nationale and caused a surge in hate attacks.

France can end this. It will have to end this, lest it find the hate-mongering Front Nationale winning an election, and inflaming the situation further. But until it does, this is the bloody price that gets paid for being an imperial power and not accepting the consequences of ones actions.

Nasty, but true.

Key flies to Europe: What should his priorities be

Prime Minister John Key has flown to Europe, where he will meet with various European political and economic leaders. After a couple of tumultuous weeks in which we have seen Britain vote to leave the European Union, the leadership of Britains two main parties get plunged into uncertainty and both the Euro and the British Pound cop thumpings on the exchange rate, Mr Key will be keen to talk about the future. But what should his priorities in Europe be?

This is an interesting question as Mr Key was one of the New Zealand politicians who supported Britain remaining in the European Union. His thinking was that at least with the European Union, even if we do not entirely like – and we don’t – their stance on trade with New Zealand we know where we stand. This was in contrast with leaders such New Zealand First leader Winston Peters who was in favour of Brexit because it meant that among other things Britain and New Zealand would be able to negotiate individual trade deals with other countries.

But now that Britain has voted Brexit, Mr Key needs to change his priorities to allow for the magnitude 8.0+ earthquake that happened in European Union and British politics on 23 June 2016. So, what should his new priorities be?

Granted Britain will not know who the new Prime Minister to replace David Cameron is until September, for the time being, establishing meaningful contact with the senior leadership of the Conservative Party and the British Labour Party should be a first priority. Although there has not been a leadership change in the British Labour Party, its leader Jeremy Corbyn needs to know and understand what New Zealand thinks and why. It is also an ideal chance to find out what timetables are starting to emerge for Brexit’s occurrence and whether there will be any ramifications for New Zealand. Whilst there he could also ask why Britain is funding and arming Saudi Arabia whilst knowing it is committing war crimes in Yemen.

But Britain is just one country Mr Key is visiting. He is also going to Italy to meet Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and France to meet President Francois Hollande, and his Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Although it appears his priorities in an economic sense might be correct, this would be a chance for him discuss the ongoing refugee crisis, the human rights issues associated with it.

Forgive France, but do not forget the Rainbow Warrior

On Monday the Prime Minister of France, Manuel Valls visited New Zealand. He was here to talk about the war against Islamic State. Being just the second visit by a French leader in 25 years, some have suggested there is work to be done on New Zealand-French relations. And perhaps, given the history between France and New Zealand, there is.

For 30 years the relationship between New Zealand and France has been dominated by two things: rugby and the Rainbow Warrior bombing.

New Zealanders were truly horrified that such an event had happened. They were furious that it was committed by a Government New Zealanders thought was friendly. And they were determined not to be cowed. That and the quick, solid detective work done by the Police that ensured that two agents would get arrested told France that it had made a huge mistake. But it would worsen further before things began to improve as France demanded the release of the agents arrested and imprisoned, angering the New Zealand Government and New Zealanders further.

For six years, only ending in 1991, when the then Prime Minister of France, Michel Rocard apologized, there was an icy freeze in New Zealand/French relations.

By 1995 with nearly a decade gone and an apology having been made by Mr Rocard, things might have been starting to improve until Jacques Chirac won the election and promised a resumption in nuclear testing that year. When France commenced nuclear testing in September of that year riots broke out at Papeete. The New Zealand Government – notable because it was a National Government – of the day recalled our ambassador to France and ships went to Mururoa to stage a protest at sea.

Over time the anger subsided and New Zealanders continued their fascination with French cuisine. More and more people were content to leave any thrashing of France to the All Blacks. I cannot draw any links between Franco-Kiwi relations and the record of tests between New Zealand and France on the rugby pitch over that time, except to say both sides definitely had their moments at the Rugby World Cup:

  • 1987 Rugby World Cup Final – New Zealand 29; France 9
  • 1999 Rugby World Cup Semi-Final – France 43; New Zealand 31
  • 2007 Rugby World Cup Quarter Final – France 20; New Zealand 18
  • 2011 Rugby World Cup Final – New Zealand 8; France 7

Today there is a common acceptance of what happened. For the most part, France did in the end apologize and a sorry chapter has closed. As long as France does not resume nuclear testing in the Pacific, the subject for most is well and truly closed. Those who have not should now forgive France.

But not forget.