Trading away our values

What is economic gain worth to us?

Let’s put aside any potential debate, and assume for a minute that trade liberalisation does indeed benefit our country and contributes to our prosperity.

What would we sacrifice for those gains? What are we willing to turn a blind eye to in the name of economic growth?

If the so-called Islamic State were capable of achieving actual statehood, solidifying their control over large reserves of oil, would it be prudent to seek a trade deal for our own benefit?  They might make a good market for our Halal meat industry. How about if the rest of the world embraced this murderous band of religious zealots into the international community?

Most likely your toes curl and you shudder at the very thought of becoming entwined with such an absolute bastion of wickedness.

It is inconceivable that we would engage in economic commerce with a state – essentially legitimatising its existence – where indiscriminate beheadings and public floggings, on questionable charges, are commonplace.  A place where profound bigotry is ingrained and only one prevailing narrow interpretation of Islam is permitted; all other religions, or atheism for that matter, are outlawed and there is a real possibility of death awaiting these thought crimes.  A state where women are treated, at the very best, as second-class citizens and children are indoctrinated in this way of life to ensure the perpetuation of fanaticism.

Certainly, this is what happens within Islamic State held territories, but the inhumane practises outlined above are routine state sanctioned conduct within Saudi Arabia – the nation that the Islamic State dreams of being if it were ever to achieve its goal of a regional or global caliphate.

Saudi Arabia, the benchmark for intolerant medieval religious totalitarianism, and the nation our Government is desperate to pursue for trade.  So desperate, in fact, our Government is willing to offer a bribe, sorry, I mean legitimately fund the construction of a multi-million dollar farm, to placate an influential wealthy Saudi businessman.

When facing questions regarding the human rights policies of other nations, China for example, both National, and Labour before them, suggest we are better positioned to influence and raise our concerns if we are on the inside.  Is this really true?  How much influence do we gain? How many times have we raised our concerns over the stifling of human rights in China, perhaps a quiet diplomatic whisper here-and-there?

Surely, no politician is so naïve as to think little New Zealand is capable of influencing China, the economic behemoth, into changing its behaviour in any significant way.  What do we really think would happen to the quality of our trade deal, which we are now so heavily reliant on, if we ever found the necessity to speak out loudly against abuses occurring within China?  Who would be hurting more when the deal begins to unravel?

There is no doubt that our economic reliance on bilateral trade deals restricts our ability to project criticism, and to encourage international pressure for reform, towards our trade partners.  We usually need them more than they need us.

I consider myself a realist.  I acknowledge we will occasionally need to suck it up and stay quiet on some issues in order to make gains elsewhere. If we refused to trade with every nation that failed to meet our human rights standard, we would isolate ourselves from large swathes of the world’s economy. China and the United States’ – with their record on the death penalty – come to mind. But why deceive ourselves? We conclude these deals for no other reason than the pursuit of economic prosperity.  Any talk of gaining influence is merely a sop to ease our conscience.

But surely there must be somewhere where we draw the line, when weighing economic prosperity against our core values?

It is difficult to imagine a nation that characterises the antithesis of liberal Western values more fulsomely than Saudi Arabia.

Really consider for a second the horror of this middle eastern utopia, which has a penal code setting the death penalty for morality ‘crimes’ such as adultery, sodomy and fornication, and for imaginary ‘crimes’ such as witchcraft and sorcery.

What does it say about us if we flippantly remark, “well, every country should be free to govern their own way?”

If we truly believe in the universality of liberal principles, then by all rights Saudi Arabia should be an international pariah, shunned by the West.

Instead, we see US presidents walking hand-and-hand with Saudi Kings.  We see the United Nations, in a comprehensive display of its sheer irrelevancy as a force for good, offering this medieval reversion a place on the Human Rights Council.  And we see our own Government bending over backwards to entice the archetype for prejudiced Islamic theocracy into a trade deal.

However, don’t fret – we are told in soothing tones – we aren’t completely selling out our own values, we will be better placed to pressure and influence the House of Saud to adopt a more humane regime.  Cognitive dissonance is indeed a powerful force.

The United States, in over 50 years of close alliance with Saudi Arabia, has failed to encourage any meaningful human rights reform.

Our Government is utterly deluded if it thinks there is even a slight prospect we will have one iota of positive influence.  The realist truth is surely worse – our Government knows it cannot influence the Saudis on human rights; we are only in the trade deal hunt for the economic potential.

If we, and I include the entire West, cannot draw the line here at Saudi Arabia, a nation where human rights abuses are so systematically egregious, then it seems very clear that we are purely moral relativists.

Our professed belief in universal values and human rights is meaningless if we are willing to legitimise the antithesis to those values with our trade policies, and in our failure to condemn the barbarism of Saudi governance.

We should not meekly suggest reform behind closed doors, at select times. We should demand reform loudly and persistently, as a necessary basic condition of entry into the global community.

When did the West lose its spine?  Perhaps it has always been this way and I am displaying my idealism.

Our approach to dealing with Saudi Arabia is shameful and an affront to everything we value.  Instead of pathetically clamouring for a scrap of economic gain we should be shouting from the rooftops that Saudi Arabia’s behaviour is indistinguishable from the exact evil we are fighting in the Islamic State.

Of course, we might have to wait until an adequate substitute for oil is discovered.

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