New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is signaling the possibility of expelling Russian diplomats from Wellington as a way of following up on Britain’s expulsion of 23 such diplomats.
The British expulsions are in response to the poisoning of two Russians, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia who were found in deep comas at a restaurant in Salisbury. The British attributed this poisoning to the Russian government. Mr Skripal’s background is that he had acted as British agent in Russia before his release as part of a spy prisoner swap in 2010.
Whether the Russian government was responsible or not – and the British government does not seem to have produced any direct evidence that they were – I wish to make the point as strongly as possible that it would not be appropriate for “nuclear-free New Zealand” to follow suit by expelling Russian embassy staff or, yet worse, to actually close the embassy.
My starting point is the prime minister’s statement in an interview on CNN at the end of October last year, just a few days after she was elected prime minister, that New Zealand is “staunchly nuclear-free”. She saw that as the base from which New Zealand would approach the then escalating nuclear crisis between North Korea and the US.
She had also in her election campaigning referred to her previous generation’s “nuclear-free moment” as a precedent for the present generation’s major issue: climate change.
It is of the utmost importance right now to be clear about what this “nuclear-free moment” entails so that our politicians and people can continue to build upon it rather than find that they are burying it while hardly knowing what is happening.
Keeping up full communication with nuclear powers and helping them to do similar with each other is exactly what would be wanted by those New Zealanders who, with David Lange’s 1984-7 Labour government, created the original “nuclear-free moment”.
As he himself observed, from the early 1980s there were over 300 recognized peace groups throughout the country, many of which campaigned successfully by 1984 for 94 local bodies to declare their areas nuclear-free zones (David Lange, Nuclear Free, the New Zealand Way 1990, p. 149). That year, also, his Labour government came in to power with a landslide majority.
Shortly after, in January 1985 the US wanted to send a destroyer the USS Buchanan to visit. As was its custom, the US refused to confirm or deny whether it carried nuclear weapons or not. Prime Minister Lange then refused it entry and in response the US suspended New Zealand from the alliance with it and Australia (Anzus).
In 1987 his government passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone Act which gave the prime minister the power to refuse entry to New Zealand waters of any warships which they thought could be carrying nuclear weapons.
Adopting this nuclear-free policy and holding to it under pressure helped give New Zealand something of a reputation for constructive independence. This in turn helped New Zealand twice to campaign successfully to be elected as a non-permanent member on the United Nations Security Council – in 1993-4 and 2015-16. A major plank for the second campaign was as an independent “honest broker”.
With relationships and communication now breaking down between nuclear armed Britain and Russia, it is time for New Zealand to rise to the occasion by building upon its 1980s nuclear-free moment. That means remaining well positioned to act as an honest broker that can communicate with and between both nuclear-armed disputants. It is certainly not appropriate to bury that nuclear-free moment by expelling staff from the embassy of one party or, even worse, possibly closing its embassy down.
The cabinet could possibly make a decision on this issue tomorrow, Monday March 19th. If so, I hope they are fully appraised and cognizant as to what is at stake.