29 April 2015
A sage observation from St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, over 1600 years ago continues to shape many of our patterns of behaviour today. It was he who observed wryly that “When I am in Rome, I tend to do as the Romans do”. He could not have imagined the ongoing significance that casual remark would assume, especially in the world of international diplomacy.
The latest example of this practice at work was the decision by the wife of the Prime Minister to wear the traditional loose-fitting anabaya robes, but not a head scarf, during the visit to Saudi Arabia this week. There are arguments for and against doing so – Michelle Obama famously refused to comply during a recent Presidential visit – but, generally speaking, the law of “when in Rome” seems to apply. (Indeed, any Arabic delegation I have met in New Zealand has usually turned up in the most exquisitely cut Amani suits!)
Actually, more important than abiding by whatever the appropriate dress code is considered to be, are the discussions that take place during such visits. In the current case, New Zealand is keen to conclude the long-awaited Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Co-operation Council states, of which Saudi Arabia is the leading member. The balancing act for the Prime Minister was whether he was prepared to pull his punches on Saudi Arabia’s utterly appalling human rights record, particularly with regard to women, and its heavy reliance on decapitation, whipping and mutilation in its justice system.
Over the years, New Zealand, despite its proven record in human rights, has not always been up to the mark when it comes to expressing horror at the barbaric practices of others. We implicitly condoned apartheid South Africa right through until the mid 1980s; we have long been tongue-tied when it comes to China’s human rights record; and, we seem set to do likewise with Saudi Arabia.
However, frustrating and humiliating as that can be, we could never be accused of playing international bully. Yet it is difficult to escape applying that description to Australia’s handling of the recent Bali Nine ringleaders’ executions. While nothing excuses the barbarism of Indonesia’s actions, the various interventions by Australia – Foreign Minister Julie Bishop notably excepted – all served to make it virtually impossible for Indonesia to get off its high horse with any semblance of dignity. From the crass linking of Australian aid after the Boxing Day tsunami to favourable consideration of this case, through to independent commentary in Australia on the eve of the executions that the actions of President Widodo actually showed his political impotence, Australia appeared hell-bent on humiliating Indonesia into submission, rather than saving the lives of its two citizens.
There is a lesson here for New Zealand. A New Zealander is currently on trial for his life on drugs charges in Indonesia, and potentially faces the fate as Chan and Sukumaran. We need to be talking quietly to the Indonesians now, letting them know our views, and working with them to see if a reasonable solution can be effected. The process needs to be ongoing, not just left until the last few months.
As recent events show, preserving the human rights of a country’s citizens can be a far more delicate form of observing St Ambrose’s principle of “When in Rome’ than just abiding by the local dress code.