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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Free Tibet? Let's start with Fiji

November 25, 2009

Brian Rudman
New Zealand Herald
November 25, 2009

As far as breaking election promises go, it's hardly a biggie.

So, John Key promised last year to meet the Dalai
Lama and now, oh dear, his diary is full and it's not possible.

At least he's saying it up front, and not
contriving meetings in airport lounges and behind
the bike sheds like previous prime ministers have done.

The world's longest surviving political exile is
back in town again, selling peace and religion at
the Vector arena for $20 a seat.

In his spare time, he's again trying to stir up
trouble against China, one of our largest trading partners.

If I were Prime Minister, I suspect I would also
think the chance to swap pictures of Bronagh and
the kids with this turbulent priest was not really worth the trouble.

Tibet was never the Shangri-La that his ageing hippy supporters make out.

It was a feudal theocracy run by a Buddhist
hierarchy, who perpetuated themselves, not by
family line, but by plucking unsuspecting
youngsters from their families, spiriting them
away to spooky monasteries and proclaiming them
the reincarnation of dead high priests.

Whether the exiles want to reinstate this system
is anyone's guess. And really, is it any of our
business? Certainly, it's hardly a battle worth
risking New Zealand's economic future over.

It's not as though John Key is the first of our
leaders to bow to the reality of politics in the grown-up world.

The most obvious genuflection to a greater power
came in 1986, when David Lange decided he
couldn't risk French President Mitterand's
threats to our trade with the Europe Economic
Community if we didn't release the Rainbow Warrior bombers.

The two French government agents, Dominique
Prieur and Alain Mafart, had pleaded guilty to
blowing up the Greenpeace ship in Auckland
Harbour, killing a crewman in the process.

They were sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter,
but in just over six months were given back to
the French, in a deal stitched up with the aid of
the United Nations Secretary-General.

To give him his due, Mr Lange did stand up to our
ally, the United States, to veto nuclear ships visiting our ports.

That earned us a cold shoulder that still
lingers. We got relegated down the queue as far
as free trade deals were concerned.

It might also have increased our willingness to
cosy up and send troops to such questionable conflicts as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The French and the Americans were our so-called
allies and partners, yet when we crossed them all bets were off.

Cheeking a non-ally like China over an issue as
esoteric as Tibet seems suicidal.

We can't even persuade or bully our tiny
near-neighbours like Fiji to restore democracy,
or Tonga to institute it, so why risk our
livelihood taunting the elephant with genuinely big tusks?

Talking Fiji, Mr Key flies out to the
Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in
Trinidad and Tobago to where a controversial
report on democracy in the 53-nation club of
former British colonies will liven up the discussions.

This is a foreign affairs issue that New Zealand,
as a founding member of the grouping, genuinely needs to confront.

The authors declare that on its 60th anniversary,
"if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant ... it
must work harder to address the concerns of
ordinary citizens". It calls for "a renewed
commitment to championing democracy and to the
protection of human rights. Otherwise, however
uncomfortable this might be for some leaders,
there is no real justification for the Commonwealth".

Put together by the Commonwealth's "think-tank"
policy studies unit, it recommends getting tough
on autocratic regimes, by, if necessary, publicly
"shaming" some of its members.

That tactic hasn't exactly cowered our friends in
Fiji, but short of invasion, and no one is talking that, what else to do?

What it does suggest is something that the
Commonwealth has long seemed to lack - a sense of
purpose, other than just providing a comfort
blanket to the royal family and Britain to help
them get over their loss of empire.

The authors suggest that promoting democracy
"should not be just one among a number of
Commonwealth objectives; it must become, and be
recognised as, the defining characteristic of the association".

They're proposing a system of democracy warrants
of fitness, where the Commonwealth secretariat
has a standing and statutory invitation to every
Commonwealth country "to provide a regular health
check on the state of democracy in each member state".

Government, the media, the legal profession and
NGOs would be part of the process.

This warrant of fitness would not just involve
election day activities, but all the other
aspects of democracy such as political funding,
state interference in political parties and the like.

The authors acknowledge the size of the project.
They note that in many countries the main threat
to the checks and balances needed for a true
democracy is "a too powerful and overweening executive".

It also notes that "the development of a
democratic culture demands that democracy is
practised not only in political parties, but also
in most other social, political, cultural and
economic institutions, organisations and communities".

It's been 18 years since the Harare Commonwealth
Declaration that proclaimed making democracy "a
way of life" in the Commonwealth. Now we have a
proposal on how to make it happen.

Whatever we might say to each other, democracy is
something we New Zealanders are quite good at.

And as a foreign affairs project, teaching it to
others is likely to be more rewarding and
productive than vague campaigns to save Tibet, or for that matter, Afghanistan.
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