An Open Letter to Gerry Brownlee

Brownlee with extra slime

Tēnā Koe Minister Brownlee,

We the undersigned were dismayed and alarmed when you, as a newly appointed Foreign Minister, described Aotearoa’s co-sponsorship of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 (UNSCR 2334) as “premature”. Moreover we find your retraction of the comment is woefully unsatisfactory as you state that your difficulty was in finding the correct diplomatic language. By implication this means that you do not retract the sentiments expressed merely the terminology used to express those sentiments.

In just a few words you have managed to offend against truth, morality, law and honour on four counts. Firstly, you have dismissed our rights and responsibilities as a member state of the United Nations to uphold the UN Convention and other aspects of International Humanitarian Law. Secondly, you have similarly ignored our specific obligations to the Palestinian people to whom we have an added legal and moral onus due to our role in creating the conditions that led to their plight. Thirdly, by showing a willingness to buckle before Israel’s anger (when we have a greater legitimate claim to grievance) you make your allegiance to your own country seem weak and entirely unbefitting for the Foreign Minister of a sovereign independent state. Fourthly, the suggestion that UNSC resolutions must be accepted by the parties involved implies that the world should be governed by the principle of might-makes-right and that law is only to be applied where it is accordance with the will of the powerful.


Count 1: The Abnegation of Aotearoa’s Responsibilities as a UN Member State

One of the puzzling and disturbing aspects of your statement about UNSCR 2334 is that it seems to imply that New Zealand should not be poking its nose into other peoples business. As a member of the community of nations, however, it is almost universally acknowledged that we are supposed to partake in collective enforcement of international law. Furthermore, your own government spent a great deal of energy and money lobbying to be seated at the UNSC specifically in order to be able to have our say on matters relating to international security. Far from being “premature” UNSCR 2334 is consonant with and reaffirms 10 prior resolutions dating back to UNSCR 242 in 1967 which called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from militarily occupied territories including Gaza and the West Bank. In 1979 UNSCR 446 stated that Israeli settlements in occupied territories contravened the Fourth Geneva convention. 37 years later UNSCR 2334 is merely the eighth UNSC resolution to reiterate this point.

To describe UNSCR 2334 as “premature” is an act of wilful ignorance that seems calculated to rewrite, or simply erase, history in order control the way the present is understood. Yet the law is very clear: The occupied territories are accepted as such by all UN member states except Israel. It is illegal for Israel to settle its own citizens in the occupied territories, yet Israel has continually been supplying infrastructure, security, subsidisation and a full range of state services to “unsanctioned” settlers. Two months before you made your statement Israel gave the first official approval for a West Bank settlement in 20 years, provocatively showing a deliberate disregard for legality that your solicitous reaction helps to legitimise.

Far from being premature our co-sponsorship of UNSCR 2334 is belated and weak. It is considered “non-binding” because, as it comes under Chapter VI of the UN Convention, there is no enforcement mechanism. We are nevertheless obliged, in theory, to take action to ensure that its provisions are met. The fact that we have co-sponsored a resolution and then done absolutely nothing to enforce it makes us look rather pathetic. Successive governments have shown that our priority is to be seen to be doing good, but not to make any principled commitment to live up to that appearance.

Count 2: The Abnegation of Aotearoa’s Responsibilities to the Palestinian People

The United Nations has a Secretariat, but the UN itself is in fact the body of member states. We are the United Nations and it is farcical and infantile that we should sponsor and support dozens of UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions calling for action but refuse to take any concrete steps to do anything (as if some hitherto unknown entity, like a magical Resolutions Fairy, will somehow do our work for us). The farce becomes tragedy when one considers the people who may be offered empty promises of peace, security and justice. In the case of Palestine this has become an excruciating prolonged betrayal.

The UN, and in particular those countries (such as ours) which voted to partition Palestine in 1947 bear a moral and legal responsibility to uphold Palestinian rights in a way that is unique. The UN is not solely responsible for the ethnic cleansing which displaced millions of Palestinians in the “Nakba” of 1948, but as early as December 1948 the UNGA recognised a special responsibility to Palestinians. It resolved that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

The Palestinians were displaced before the formation of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and were placed under a special United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Though there have been times when UNRWA has made the difference between life and death for thousands of Palestinians, some also believe that the special treatment and different status afforded to Palestinians has allowed UN members to shirk their duties. The UN committed to accord special efforts to bring resolution to the plight of the Palestinian people, not to create a special agency and then forget about it. That means that we chose to have a special obligation to the Palestinian people, reinforced by UNSCR 242 in 1967 which called for a “just and lasting settlement”.

Despite all their good work, 70 years of UNRWA and a UN mandate to allow refugees the right to return home have done nothing to improve the general outlook for Palestinians. Palestinians today are losing any realistic hope that even the small part of their original homeland that is considered “occupied” can ever form a separate Palestinian state. Gaza is besieged and blockaded, while the West Bank is honeycombed with Israeli settlements, corridors, and security zones. Palestinians are locked into enclaves, controlled like inmates in giant prison camps. They live lives of poverty and insecurity. They are deprived of basic human rights and liberties under a one-sided pretext of security that takes no account of the illegal violence meted against them but uses their armed and unarmed resistance (which is recognised as lawful under International Humanitarian Law) as a justification for oppression.

Aotearoa has done precisely nothing to try to live up to its 70 year-old obligations to support the right of 1948 refugees to return, and now, when our country pays lip service to its 50 year-old commitment to upholding the Fourth Geneva Convention with regards to the West Bank, you call such a minimal gesture “premature”? If your comments are not disingenuous then it is hard to grasp what understandings of history, law, justice or even truth you are labouring under.

Count 3: Questionable Loyalty Unbefitting the Foreign Minister of a Sovereign Country

You have made it clear in both your original statement on UNSCR 2334 and in your retraction that you wish to mend diplomatic fences with Israel. It is clear, however, that you are trying to assuage Israel in order to achieve that. Given that we have done nothing of which Israel can legitimately be aggrieved, attempting to mollify them seems craven or betrays a lack of loyalty to the country of which you are the Foreign Minister. Israel is the party that has offended. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is reported to have told your predecessor: “If you continue to promote this resolution, from our point of view it will be a declaration of war.” Israel withdrew their ambassador and you want to return our diplomacy to a normal footing. From the obsequious stance you seem to be adopting “normal diplomatic relations” must mean that Israel can use bullying tactics and undiplomatic hyperbole to try to block us from acting as we have every right to choose.

Your attempt to give substance to Israel’s illegitimate complaint cannot serve this country’s interests. As far as I know we have never acted in any way in which Israel could legitimately claim victimhood, yet Netanyahu’s inflammatory comments are just the latest example of a number of ways in which Israel has offended against us. They abducted one of our MPs, Marama Davidson, from international waters. (John Key’s response was to condescendingly criticise Davidson for ignoring an MFAT travel advisory, as if Israel’s actions were simply not to be examined at all.) Israelis were also caught conducting espionage here, attempting to acquire New Zealand passports presumably to help Israeli assassins murder political opponents in other countries (which is what they used forged UK, French, Irish and Australian passports for).

No matter how it is worded, it seems completely inappropriate for you to bring into question Aotearoa’s gesture of commitment to international law and our minimal effort to show that we can speak with an independent voice. New Zealand received very wide support from the UNGA when it stood for election to the UNSC. That support is based in the perception that were are credible as an exponent of international legitimacy. Your comments are detrimental to our international standing and can only serve to give Israel a diplomatic boost at the expense of our own country, at the expense of the United Nations, and at the expense of the international rule of law.

Count 4: Tacit Abandonment of Lawfulness

The last point to be made about your statement is that it reflects a mentality that effectively negates the practical applicability of any law in international affairs. By saying that resolutions depend on “the willingness of the parties who are having the resolution imposed upon them to accept what’s in it” you have taken our traditional passive inaction and made it a positive choice. There is no point in any UN resolution if they are only made in accordance with what the parties will accept. Under that system international law would be a meaningless and verbose way of stating that the strong do what they wish and the weak suffer what they must.

Of course, I think we all understand that you would not make the same condemnation of a resolution against ISIS, nor Syria, nor North Korea, nor Iran, nor any regime deemed inimical by the West. This distinction, however clear it might seem to you, is not to be found in any law and thus it is only another iteration of the doctrine of might-makes-right.

On all of these four counts we find that your comments (however brief and however ill-worded) betray Aotearoa, betray the community of nations, and betray humanity. It seems clear that you are not capable of competently acting as our Foreign Affairs Minister and we call for your immediate resignation.


Te Tau Ihu Palestine Solidarity