Customs and Excise Amendment Bill (No 2) – Third Reading


The Green Party supports the Customs and Excise Amendment Bill (No 2). In particular, we like the way that it firms up the ban on strategic exports. That is, exports that can assist repressive forces in other countries. We think that New Zealand should be a beacon of peace in the world, and it is inconsistent with that aim for us to be exporting military equipment that can be used against innocent people.

There is a clear ban in the bill on the export of components for nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and there is a ban on the export of many other military items. With many of the military goods and their export, it is a question of which countries they are to be sent to. This can be a little loose in terms of definitions. The bill states that exports can be banned where it is “… contrary to New Zealand’s interests,” and of course that can sometimes be a matter of debate. This definition is filled out somewhat in the criteria of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the assessment of export applications, which says that exports should not contribute to a regional conflict and should take account of the recipient’s record on international humanitarian law.

On that second ground we should be careful, perhaps, of exporting to the United States military, which clearly violates international humanitarian law in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and at its detention centre in Guantanamo Bay. However, our Government would probably think that that would be a step too far. Winston Peters would probably define that as anti-Americanism, even though that would only get us offside with the Bush administration, not with the American people who are quite critical of that administration on issues of war and peace.

It is certainly good that in 2004 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade turned down an application by a New Zealand firm Oscmar International to export a man-worn laser detection harness to the Israeli defence force, presumably because it would have violated one of the ministry’s criteria — that is, not to contribute to a regional conflict. However, there is subsequent information that Oscmar effectively exported the technology for this device to Israel via the United States by exporting the technology via the Internet. So it is good that a new category relating to the export of electronic goods is now in the legislation.

The harness that Oscmar exported was also exported around that time to other countries. The ministry approved 30 other export applications for the device. We do not know which countries these harnesses went to, and for all we know they may have gone to some countries with a repressive Government or some countries involved in regional conflicts. We do not know this because the information was withheld as it was deemed “commercial in confidence”. In some ways there is even less openness now.

Last October the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee asked: “Which strategic goods have been stopped from being exported from New Zealand in the last financial year? Please list the name of the item and the country it was intended to be exported to and the New Zealand Company involved.” One item had been refused permission to be exported by a company, but the select committee was refused the particular information requested “to protect this information which has been provided in confidence.” This leaves a huge hole in the accountability of the whole system. It means that we are simply supposed to trust the ministry to get it right, which is not the way things are supposed to operate in a democracy. Surely other New Zealand exporters would get a few clues on what to do and what not to do, by being able to find out from the public record which items had been declined for export, and to which countries they were going to be sent.

This is particularly true in that additional category included in the bill — electronic goods. Electronic goods can be even more difficult to define in terms of whether they are strategic or whether they should be exported to this or that country. For example, the crystal oscillators produced in New Zealand by Rakon were ruled out as being strategic goods by the military because they were also used in civilian goods.

There were two problems from the Greens’ point of view, in terms of whether these crystal oscillators would be deemed to be strategic goods. Firstly, it is clear that they were dual-use goods, and dual-use goods are covered by the legislation. There is an argument that their export to the US military should have been prevented because they were to be used in guidance systems for smart bombs and missiles, which clearly are being used today to worsen regional conflicts, particularly in the Middle East. However, it is worse than that, because Rakon clearly received a lot of funding — tens of thousands of dollars — from a major US military contractor, Rockwell Collins, to develop the crystal oscillators to a military specification, not a civilian specification. Rakon’s words were that they had to be developed to be “radiation hardened” and “shock hardened” for use in these missiles.

There is another tricky area with strategic goods. One successful software exporter in New Zealand is Right Hemisphere, which produces 3-D display software, working up displays for both civilian purposes and military purposes. What do we do in that situation? Are they covered by this bill? It is not an easy situation. What we find in business and in Government is that military uses are often overlooked, if companies are big enough and exporting enough.

We can all recall how the US and British Governments were quite happy to export military equipment to Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the 1980s when they were getting a lot of money out of it. They are a bit embarrassed now about how they exported bits for Saddam’s chemical weapons to gas the Kurds. At the time those same Western Governments tried to cover up the fact that Saddam had gassed the Kurds because Britain and America, under their presidents, thought that Iraq, under Saddam, was an ally against their main antagonist, as they saw it at the time, Iran.

We can also look at the problem of export of strategic goods from the other end — perhaps in the light of a recent Green effort, headed by our co-leader Russel Norman, to stop the Superannuation Fund investing in companies that produce nuclear weapons and cluster bombs. One of the arguments used by the Government to counter our concern was that when we are dealing with big firms like Boeing, they are so big that they are in all kinds of ventures, both civilian and military, and it is wrong to stop investing in them purely because they have some military products, even if, as in the case of Boeing, these products are powerful enough to blow up the world.

I think our Government has a duty, in things like the Superannuation Fund or what we export, to provide an example to the world. It does not mean to say we abandon all military exports, but it does mean that we should not really see our future as a major arms exporter. We do not want our economy geared to any significant extent around the business of war.

One of the problems we see in the United States is that so much of its economy is devoted to producing the machinery of killing, that even many Congress people owe their elections to donations from big arms producers. Over $400 billion of the American Budget is devoted to military expenditure — and much of that to producing arms. Companies in New Zealand that produce military weapons for export should not be the favoured recipient of grants from public agencies, the way that Oscmar has been in recent times.

Hopefully this Bill, which we support, will be a step towards a more moral and more pro-peace export policy. Thank you.