Sanctions Bill on Russia contravenes democratic ideals of debate and scrutiny

Matt Robson
Auckland, March 13, 2022

Matt Robson, Barrister and former Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control

The significant Sanctions Bill on Russia went straight to Parliament and was passed in a little over two hours. There was no debate.

Just set speeches where the Party line of Russia’s “unprovoked aggression” was repeated and repeated. All parties agreed to this mock parliamentary debate. The vote was unanimous. Not one dissenting voice or sign of original research in a Parliament of 120. Amazing!

Surely a measure, to counter “war, human rights abuses and the removal of fundamental rights” as National MP Simon O’Connor wrote in last week’s New Zealand Herald, should have been scrutinised in detail? MPs should demonstrate to electors that they had studied the complex issues of a war that did not begin yesterday.

A war where two nuclear-armed superpowers face each other.

Infographics from Daily Mail (UK)

Public scrutiny critical

As a former MP on the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee (FADTC) I know the importance of public scrutiny. It is ironic that a Bill to uphold democracy, human rights and to punish aggressors was passed under urgency.

Select Committee hearings allow for a wide range of views, often from those with far more expertise than the MPs, and to commission independent research so that Parliament is not just a rubber stamp for the Executive.

The Sanctions Bill passed in a very charged atmosphere. There was no clinical dissection of it. Russia was evil. NATO stood for democracy and human goodness. All Ukrainians were of one view. There were no complexities on the matter that have engaged so many countries for so many decades. All 120 MPs were of one view. As Mr O’Connor wrote: “The deepening crisis in Ukraine is something that should worry us all. We have not seen this sort of blatant aggression since the late 1930s.”

The crisis indeed worries the world. But is it really the most blatant aggression since the 1930s? If FADTC had debated this point, it could have compared Ukraine with wars such as that in European Yugoslavia which was bombed by NATO without UN authorisation.

Then it could have considered wars outside Europe. Vietnam and Iraq, the Indonesian seizure of sovereign and independent Timor Leste in 1975, an occupation that cost an estimated 200,000 Timorese lives, and many other examples of blatant aggression since the 1930s. The current Saudi attack on Yemen and NATO member Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria in its decade long war against the Kurds provide important lessons. The illegal sanctions placed by the US on sovereign Cuba for over 60 years would have been instructive.

German Vice-Chancellor warns of energy crisis (Michael Kappeler for DPA Alliance)

Moral principles paramount

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman could have been compared with President Putin. The murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi have gone unpunished, along with his illegal war on Yemen the arms for which come from NATO countries. This key NATO ally has been restored to his place in the “international community.”

Of course, sanctions on oil-rich Saud Arabia, a key ally of an arms buyer from the United States and a cooperating state with the Five Eyes, would have many consequences, not all favourable to New Zealand. But it was heartening to hear Green Leader James Shaw state in the “debate” that moral principles should come first for a democracy.

No research went to Parliament on the 1991 agreement that NATO would not expand to the East and certainly not threaten Russia. 13 member states are now 30 with three more sets to join. The Minsk 1 and 2 Agreements of 2014 and 2015 forged by Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France, which recognised the Donbas regions of Ukraine as autonomous regions are fundamental to understanding the current war. They were violated before the ink was dry with continuous heavy fighting between Ukrainian armed forces, nationalist and neo-fascist militias and the armed forces of the Russian- speaking autonomous republics.

Many lives have been lost in this inter-Ukrainian war. The Minsk Agreements, the internal Ukrainian divisions, the overthrow of the democratically elected government of President Yanukovych in 2014 and the role of the US and well-funded neo-Nazi groups in that event, the refusal of the US to restore the intermediate-range nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, the stationing of those weapons in Romania, Slovenia and now Poland (like Cuba so close to a major superpower ) conflict along with the vexed question of the expansion of NATO were not part of the debate.

The electorate has no idea which of its publicly funded MPs, if any, had researched these issues as they should have if we are to have good legislation.

The New Zealand public is in favour of the peaceful resolutions of conflicts, where possible, and supports New Zealand offering itself as a mediator between conflicting parties.

The government is promoting the path of dialogue for Ukraine. All our parties support that.

New Zealand in a paradox

But how can New Zealand mediate if it is a Cooperating Non-Member state of nuclear-armed NATO, a Five Eyes partner and participates militarily and politically in the US and NATO Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China.

Not one MP raised this problem. Neither the Foreign Minister nor the Minister of Disarmament and Arms Control mentioned it.

Yet both have portfolios supposedly dedicated to New Zealand being able to act as a mediator in such conflicts. That should have worried MPs. Inequity parties have to come to the table with clean hands. To be an independent and impartial mediator then participating in the military alliances of what Mr O’Connor, echoing the constant mantra of government ministers, termed “our traditional allies such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and most recently Australia,” may not be the path to tread.

FADTC should have carried out its constitutional role. Through research and expertise, Parliament has informed debate. That is an approach that kept us safe during Covid.

French scholar Pierre Bourdieu once said words to the effect that it will be a great day for democracy when politicians act like scholars and not politicians. That is good scholarly advice, which is perhaps worthy of compliance.

Matt Robson is a Barrister based in Auckland. He was Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control and Associate-Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Labour government (1999-2002). The above article appeared first in the New Zealand Herald.

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