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May 28, 2007 | by  | in Opinion |
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If God has a sense of irony then the death of Augusto Pinochet could be it. On the 10th of December 2006 on Human Rights Day Pinochet left this world. That twist of fate reminds me of an experience I had when I visited Berlin a few years ago. There on a guided tour of the Reichstag my heavily accented German guide poised and raising his finger towards a nearby child’s playground said “somewhere over there is where Hitler died. The exact spot was deliberately obscured, but it is probably where the children’s playground is now situated”.

Totalitarian monsters like Hitler and Pinochet are ubiquitously considered to be violators of human rights. As examples of what can occur with unchecked absolute power these dictators have become props for our politicians to wield arguments and criticisms of other ethical systems. Being able to criticize and condemn other regimes however depends on a country’s own human rights record.

In New Zealand last week our reputation on human rights was questioned with a report by Amnesty International. The critical report described four areas of concern. This includes the New Zealand Police’s trial of 50,000 volt Tasers. Since June 2001 150 people have died after being Tasered in the United States. In New Zealand so far eight people have been the victim of Tasers. Another area of concern identified by the report is the treatment of Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui, who is still awaiting a hearing on the security risks certificate issued against him four years ago. The report also lists violence against women and the government’s failure to set up the Action Plan for Human Rights as other issues of concern.

The reaction from our government has been bureaucratic at best. Responding to Keith Locke last Thursday the Honourable Mark Burton said: “The matters raised in the report need to be viewed in the broad perspective of New Zealand’s strong record in promoting and protecting human rights, and the high level of human rights enjoyed throughout our country.”

This heartless, mechanical, draconian, and thoroughly passionless response deserves to be challenged. New Zealand has a proud tradition of standing up for the underdog. I think Tom Scott summed it up well when in a letter to the editor he said: “I very rarely comment on public issues like this but I am outraged by this country’s treatment of Mr Zaoui to date. We are a better country than this.”

But are we? Comparing ourselves with our Australian neighbours may give us something to gloat about when you consider John Howard’s treatment of refugees in past years, but how long will New Zealand’s high reputation for protection of civil rights continue in light of Amnesty’s report?

And how many more years will Ahmed Zaoui await a trail, all the while diminishing our ability to criticise other countries’ moral standards?

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