Opinion piece by Harmeet Sooden.
WITH ITS DECISION TO DEPLOY the NZDF to Iraq, the Government has bolstered New Zealand’s contributions to the US-led coalition fighting ISIS. The Government, however, has yet to provide an adequate explanation of how an NZDF intervention of any kind would be beneficial for the people of Iraq as a whole. Policy documents suggest the Government’s rationale for the deployment derives mainly from NZ’s national security interests, not necessarily what is in the best interests of the people of Iraq and Syria, or even NZers.
NZ has a long history of military involvement in the Middle East, a region of global strategic importance. NZ’s policy towards the Middle East is primarily focused on the “stability of the region”, in other words the security of NZ’s “significant economic and trading interests in the region and access to energy supplies and petrochemicals at affordable prices”. NZ has wider foreign policy goals of securing the global economic and political order, upon which the West relies. Thus, it also seeks to strengthen its “international linkages…with like-minded states” and maintain its “security credentials”. NZ’s international partnerships “amplify New Zealand’s reach and influence”, but “also bring with them expectations [of] being willing to play [a] part to advance shared security objectives.”
Accordingly, NZ and “like-minded states” are unwilling to see an independent force develop in the Middle East that has regional influence and control over substantial oil reserves. As ISIS largely operates outside the purview of the US-managed global system, its very existence is inimical to the national security interests of NZ and “like-minded states”.
Discretionary contributions to international military operations are a “longstanding and…fundamental element of…foreign policy” that NZ employs to maintain and enhance its national security interests. From an NZ perspective, “[t]he success of most major international military coalitions…depend on US involvement”, because the US is the world’s foremost military and economic power.
The Government would likely have assessed the overall parameters of the US-led coalition as being suited to mitigating the threat ISIS poses to NZ’s national security interests, and ensuring suitably “like-minded” regimes emerge in the region. The Government would have determined that NZ could best pursue its national security interests by making a contribution, including limited military support.
US policies of the past 50 years have had a devastating impact on Iraqi society. ISIS itself has its origins in the conditions created in large part by the US and its allies, beginning with the illegal US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US-led invasion and ensuing occupation – supported in part by NZ – incited the sectarian conflict that is now destabilising Iraq and spreading throughout the region.
Predominantly a military enterprise, the US-led coalition is neither led nor endorsed by the UN. It includes many nations that are reluctant to fight ISIS and excludes ground forces that are actually fighting ISIS. In legal terms, the case for the coalition’s military operations in Syria is highly controversial, whereas in Iraq the coalition can lawfully conduct operations so long as its members remain within the remit of the Iraqi Government – a government that is increasingly at risk of becoming more polarised along sectarian lines. Any military operations in Iraq would have to be conducted in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. However, many of the major contributors to the coalition have poor human rights records, some having been implicated in serious human rights violations in Iraq that may constitute war crimes.
The US-led coalition is contributing to an increase in the level of violence and suffering in the region. US-organised airstrikes are resulting in civilian deaths, which are potentially war crimes. Iraq Body Count has concluded, “The rise of [ISIS] as a major force in the conflict, as well as the military responses by the Iraqi Government and the re-entry of US and Coalition air forces into the conflict, have all contributed to the elevated death tolls” in Iraq for the year 2014. Human rights organisations are accusing the Iraqi Government and government-backed militias of committing war crimes and exacerbating sectarian tensions. Iraqi forces have reportedly been engaging in ethnic cleansing in areas reclaimed from ISIS and establishing ‘killing zones’ around Baghdad. The ICRC has stated US-led “air strikes in Iraq and Syria have compounded the humanitarian consequences of the conflicts in both countries.” Aid agencies warn the coalition strategy to retake ISIS-held population centres could greatly worsen the humanitarian crisis. Under such circumstances, NZ’s actions, including military training, could aggravate the plight of war-afflicted civilians.
If NZ were serious about addressing the security and humanitarian situation facing the people of the region, it would withdraw entirely from the US-led coalition and take the course of action advocated by the Prime Minister in June 2014: that any NZ response would be predicated on a UN mandate.
A “responsible international citizen”, particularly a member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), would appeal to the UNSC to declare ISIS a threat to international peace and security, and mandate the appropriate remedies, including any military option. Such a UNSC resolution could lead to a more reasonable response to the conflict through an inclusive UN-organised effort, in effect tempering the harmful effects of the US-led strategy.
A law-abiding state would also take a forthright stand in opposing US-backed crimes, while acting in a manner consistent with existing UNSC resolutions and international law by: blocking support for ISIS’s war-fighting capability; increasing humanitarian aid to NGOs; and supporting multilateral diplomatic initiatives to address the root causes of the conflict, especially a truce in Syria. UNAMI has stated “there is ‘general agreement,’ not just in the UN but in Iraq as well, that the security element of dealing with [ISIS] is [just] one part of the solution…to the problems facing the country”, but “an inclusive political process [is] vital to finding comprehensive solutions”. Though far from ideal, this range of measures is far more likely to serve the interests of the populations of the region.
NZ retains a relatively independent foreign policy. Whether NZ adopts principled alternatives largely depends on how willing we are to persuade our Government to reflect our values overseas.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harmeet Sooden is a human rights worker affiliated with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Iraqi Kurdistan. While working with CPT in Baghdad, Iraq in 2005, he was kidnapped and held hostage for almost four months. Tom Fox, a colleague held with him, was executed.