Two occupations: foreign policy on the wrong side of history

Phnom Penh 1987, estimated population 700,000 (Marilyn Garson)
Phnom Penh today, population 2,078,000 (Image: Eleven Myannmar)

When we speak about foreign policy, we like to say that Aotearoa punches above its weight. Our independent foreign policy is a national mantra. We have indeed taken progressive positions on some big issues. However, in between our proud moments, we have also been complicit in some of our allies’ least principled actions. I saw the cost while travelling and working under two occupations – first in Cambodia and last in Gaza, Palestine. At those two extremes of violence and deprivation, Aotearoa timidly followed our allies’ agendas.

We will need to reckon with this part of our legacy as we determine our policy on challenges like climate change.

Cambodia, 1979 – 1990

Cambodia sits between the regional powers of Vietnam and Thailand. The US regarded Cambodia as an adjunct to their war in Vietnam. From the late 1960s, President Richard Nixon authorised a secret, escalating bombardment of neutral Cambodia.

I was a child then, but I knew there was something I needed to learn in Cambodia. I studied, from the mid-1980s I travelled and then I worked in Cambodia to understand what had happened. Every Cambodian I knew who joined the Khmer Rouge, explained that they had been radicalised by the bombing. That unreachable rain of violence was intolerable.

Embittered and extremist, the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. They sealed off Cambodia, emptied the cities and reduced their country to a forced-labour camp. The world did nothing for four years, while the Khmer Rouge committed unfathomable crimes. They killed, starved or worked to death up to 2,000,000 people, a fifth of the population.

In late 1978, ostensibly responding to Khmer Rouge cross-border raids, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam installed a compliant Cambodian government led by Heng Samrin. Stories tumbled forth of the most profound suffering and trauma. A loyal remnant of the Khmer Rouge retreated into camps along the Thai border. Many others took off their uniforms and disappeared into the crowds of Cambodians who were searching for relatives, walking toward their abandoned cities or villages, walking – and not planting.

The Khmer Rouge had dragged Cambodia back to a pre-industrial state. It was the poorest place on earth, its people hungry and grieving in darkness, its infrastructure shattered. There were no reserves of food. Famine quickly set in.

The Tonle Sap inland lake was, and remains, a primary source of protein (Marilyn Garson)

The regional ASEAN group of states and the US led the response to Cambodia’s occupation and famine. Thailand wanted a buffer between itself and Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge camps offered that buffer. The US wanted to punish Vietnam for humiliating America at war four years earlier.  They aimed to ‘bleed Vietnam dry’ with the burden of feeding millions of starving Cambodian survivors in addition to its own population. Genocide? According to diplomatic cables and notes cited here, former Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila explained during a visit to New Zealand in February 1981 that genocide was “for the people of Cambodia to deal with, not Thailand and not Vietnam.” By extension, genocide was not our concern either.

We, Aotearoa, loyally adopted ASEAN’s agenda. For twelve years, we recognised the Khmer Rouge genocidaires as the rightful representatives of Cambodia. A succession of coalitions and acronyms failed to convince anyone (except our diplomats) that the Khmer Rouge had been rehabilitated or shared power in their border camps. We provided infrequent, small amounts of humanitarian aid to those Khmer Rouge-controlled “bamboo ghettoes.”  We withheld recognition from the Heng Samrin government, and we did nothing to meet the most basic rights of Cambodians to food, justice, self-determination, and safety.  

We could have chosen principle over loyalty, as some others did. Australia and the UK swiftly de-recognised the Khmer Rouge, and a few countries did aid Cambodia.

In just the first year of ASEAN’s stability regime, Counting Civilian Casualties estimates that 300,000 Cambodians died from famine. Through the 1980s, one in five Cambodian children died in their first five years. I visited and wrote about the people whose suffering did not break the surface of the world’s concern.

In the countryside, a few NGOs struggled to feed the Cambodians who languished in inland camps between two armies.  Ben Pringg camp, between Battambang and Pailin, was within artillery range of the Khmer Rouge. A woman there explained to me that they had eaten their rice seed and were again hungry. They knew that they were consuming the year’s potential crop – but with nothing else to eat, they would all have starved before the rice grew.  The Khmer Rouge shelled the NGO trucks that tried to deliver food. 

Ben Pringg camp residents (Marilyn Garson)

As a donor state, we must have understood that our aid choice contributed to massive, avoidable human suffering. Sending aid into an environment of scarcity alters its balance of power. In famine, food is a magnet. I recall any number of Cambodians who told of their losses and then mused about conditions at the border, weighing the availability of food and the possibility of flight against the certainty of encountering the Khmer Rouge.[1] 

Denied aid and trade in the name of politics, Cambodia remained the poorest place on earth a full decade after the Khmer Rouge fell, with an annual per capita GDP of $40 US.  It was also becoming the most heavily mined.

In histories like The Devil You Know: New Zealand’s Recognition Policy Towards Cambodia From 1978 – 1990, successive NZ Foreign Affairs Ministers’ reiterate that our Cambodia policy demonstrated our reliability as an ASEAN ally. Our loyalty led us into absurdity as we pursued a policy whose logical outcome – the return of the Khmer Rouge to power – we did not want.  We adhered to the ASEAN line until 19 July, 1990. By then the Vietnamese had departed. The US had withdrawn its recognition from the Khmer Rouge-led coalition. Further from the headlines, Cambodia’s civil war sputtered on for another decade.

Leading an NGO staffed by Cambodians with disabilities, I heard Cambodia’s story narrated primarily by people who survived the genocide as children. The men had been child soldiers in all of the armies, and most of my colleagues had lost limbs to landmines. They explained the meaninglessness, the fatuousness of war. They felt fated; fighting was just something they were told to do. They recalled that, when units of opposing armies stumbled upon each other in the jungle, they would first try to back away, hoping to avoid conflict by mutual, unspoken agreement.

While I worked on my Khmer literacy, I often read the local papers with colleagues who were also struggling to master Cambodia’s esoteric alphabet.  Once we read a story about an aspiring criminal who gave his followers a gun and $20. I turned to the man sitting next to me and asked him if he would join. He shrugged, “If someone gives me a gun and pays me then I have to fight.”

Rehab Craft Cambodia farewells its founder, the late Colin McLennan (Marilyn Garson)

My colleagues had been exposed to the most heartless power. Policies like ours, disinterested in justice, helped to convince them that they would always remain unprotected.

Our choices in Cambodia highlight part of New Zealand’s foreign policy legacy. Our history as a follower has done great damage. If we were ever going to act on principle, we should have done it when we faced the stark choice to align with the genocidaires or their survivors. We prioritised the interests of states whose stability was built on the suffering of a powerless nation. That sort of stability is anathema to justice or to any durable peace.

I went on to work five years in Afghanistan and I cannot help but hear the echoes.  Today, some of the same allies prioritise the isolation of the Taliban, at the direct expense of 23 million Afghans who face starvation this Northern winter. States call it a diplomatic dilemma. The World Food Programme calls Afghans’ plight “hell on earth.” 

Gaza, Palestine

A quarter-century later, I lived in the Gaza Strip from 2011 through 2015. I worked with family businesses, job-seekers and (unexpectedly) as a member of the United Nations emergency team that sheltered one-sixth of Gaza’s population through the bombardment of 2014. In Israel’s occupation of Palestine, Aotearoa again serves regional, powerful state interests, and overlooks the suffering and rights of an occupied nation.

To be clear, I am not comparing the Khmer Rouge genocide with Palestinians’ decades under settler colonial occupation. Nor is this about Vietnam or Israel per se. I am writing about New Zealand’s willingness to be led into absurdity, and our ongoing use of aid to buttress bad policy.

The UN Security Council and General Assembly, international courts, the Red Cross, legal and human rights NGOs – the overwhelming preponderance of international institutions – agree that the West Bank, east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights are Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). International Humanitarian Law and the laws of occupation apply in full. This includes Gaza. The standard for occupation is “effective control.” Israel’s military, economic, social and technological blockade effectively controls the Gaza Strip and the two million people who live behind blockade walls.  Israel disagrees.

Israel’s annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are illegal because it is illegal to annex occupied territory. UN Resolution 478 declares the annexation of East Jerusalem illegal while UN Resolution 497 covers the Golan Heights.  Donald Trump disagreed and recognised Israel’s actions. Repeated UN Resolutions and successive New Zealand governments have reiterated that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are also illegal.

Israel consistently ranks among the most militarised nations on earth. Decades of American military aid “unmatched by any other bilateral relationship in the world,” have made Israel a leading military and cybersecurity power, and weapons exporter.  Between 9 January, 2009 and 31 October, 2021, 3624 Palestinians were killed by Israelis, while 196 Israelis were killed by Palestinians: the casualties of the occupation are overwhelmingly Palestinian.

The UN Special Rapporteur summarised in October, “Israel is in long-standing breach of … foundational [legal] principles, with its occupation having crossed a bright red line into illegality under international law…. Israel is a bad-faith occupier.”

Categorising bomb fragments removed from a Beit Hanoun school, bombed in July 2014 while it was in use as a shelter for displaced Gazans. Investigation attributed the bombing to the IDF. This is among the acts that the International Criminal Court will investigate as prima facie war crimes. (Marilyn Garson)

Although we tolerated the Khmer Rouge rather than the occupation of Cambodia, in Israel-Palestine we recognise only the occupier, Israel. 138 United Nations member states also recognise the State of Palestine.[2] We do not recognise the occupied State of Palestine because, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta writes, “it lacks sufficient control of its territory to constitute a state.” (Correspondence in response to a joint briefing by Justice for Palestine and Alternative Jewish Voices, Dec 14, 2020)

Well, yes, occupation is the violent denial of territorial sovereignty. New Zealand did, however, recognise the odious Khmer Rouge, which controlled neither significant territory nor the best interests of their nation.

As a state, Israel presents its case to our government within normal diplomatic relations. Palestinians lack the representation or the access to speak.[3] Imagine how differently we might respond, if we understood that occupation is, first, the lived story of the occupied people.

We tolerate an occupation that is increasingly called apartheid.  We acknowledge the illegality of Israel’s settlements, but we do not penalise breaches of law, treaties, or conventions.[4] We have not acted on Israel’s military incarceration system with its 95% conviction rate, nor do we penalise Israel for routinely imprisoning children in military facilities – the only state to do so, in breach of the Geneva Convention. We have not condemned Israel’s recent (unsubstantiated) decision  to regard six leading Palestinian legal and human rights NGOs as “terrorist,” effectively criminalising Palestinains’ resort to law.

To paraphrase the Thai Foreign Minister’s 1981 comment, we act as if these crimes need not be our concern. Our stance is legally as well as morally wrong: occupied people are a protected category of people.  If New Zealand is committed to international law, then this is our responsibility.  Yet, when Israel deploys its overwhelming power to punish Palestinian protest, we ask everyone to stand down as if their roles were equal, and wait for two states to sprout like magic beans.

One bomb, one greenhouse, 3000 citrus trees, ten family livelihoods.  Nov 2012 (Marilyn Garson)

The long duration of this occupation is significant, not only because occupation is required to be temporary but also because this occupation is hardening. Our policy – already tilted – should be changing in response.  In October the UN Special Rapporteur assessed the “deepening occupation”:

The now 54-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestine – always repressive, always acquisitive – has been metastasizing into something much harsher and more entrenched: the permanent alien rule of one people over another, encased in a two-tiered system of unequal laws and political rights.

Even the staid former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon  is calling for change:

Israel has pursued a policy of incremental de facto annexation in the territories it has occupied since 1967… This is not a conflict between equals… a powerful state is controlling another people through an open-ended occupation… What has become increasingly clear in recent years is Israel’s intent to maintain its structural domination and oppression of the Palestinian people through indefinite occupation… a situation that arguably constitutes apartheid. It is now time for the international community to recognise and confront the consequences of Israel’s policies and actions.

Then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, speaking to UNRWA staff in Gaza City during the 2014 bombardment.  (Marilyn Garson)

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has made it clear that our policy is fixed, illegalities notwithstanding.

Successive New Zealand Governments have been clear that Israeli settlements are a violation of international law…  New Zealand will continue to pursue a principled and balanced approach to the Middle East Peace Process including support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… The two-state solution has been the accepted basis for resolving the Palestinian question for many decades now. (direct correspondence, Dec 14, 2020)

Again in Palestine, we use aid to buttress the status quo. We defray Israel’s costs, and co-manage the humanitarian catastrophe of occupation by sending the most passive forms of aid. We send relief food rather than the means of food production or food sovereignty.

Strangled by the blockade, Gaza has one of the world’s highest rates of literacy and youth unemployment. Technology is the object of many hopes. In 2015, my team was trying to raise start-up funds for our GGateway social enterprise.  Donor delegations were frequent after the devastating 2014 war, but they all said the same thing: great idea, anywhere else. Their government would not send development assistance to Gaza.  Gazans are meant to sit in limbo.  At last, the South Korean government invested – their first start-up in the Gaza Strip.

The hardest job in the world, we used to say, is to look for a job in Gaza.

Surely Aotearoa did not set out to normalise or legitimise the structural oppression of a nation. Yet here we are again, loyally enabling and siding with actions whose logical outcome we do not seek. Palestine, like Cambodia, underscores the deadly consequences of our acquiescence.

New Zealand World War I graves, Deir al Balah War Cemetery, Remembrance Day 2014 (Marilyn Garson)

Some people scoff at the very idea of values-led policy. They call it naive. I ask whether our policies in Cambodia or Palestine, unanchored by values, look sophisticated. Or independent.

The colonial face of our foreign policy presumes that the story of our world is only the story of powerful states. At our worst, we have been so eager to sit next to them, we have followed them onto the wrong side of history.

On issues of global justice, we must situate our policy with those who share both our interests and our values – the two are not in competition.

The wealthy states bring a computational theory to transformational issues. They calculate how little of their lifestyle they must give up in order to stabilise the rest. They send doses of COVID-19 vaccine to African nations while preserving the patents. They manage the disruptions of climate as one-off events, even as the waters lap onto the Pacific island shores around us. Their rearguard action builds walls to hold back the migrants without acknowledging that extractive capitalism and US-led militarism helped to necessitate the migrants’ flight.

We face issues which will not be resolved at the margins. 2022 should be a year of radical foreign policy ambitions, around which to galvanise new networks of shared purpose. It is not enough for our policymakers to trot along behind the states that brought us to the cliff’s edge. We need to see the earth and the human beings who share it, in the context of a future we will experience together. We need to ask what we owe and how much we can add.

Future-facing values are all around us. They are the values of tangata whenua and indigeneity, of young people who will live with the consequences, of the lessons we are learning in our uneven decolonisation. We are beginning to re-learn history and philosophy. Now we need to project our local lessons outward, to shape a more principled foreign policy.

Marilyn Garson


[1] On the limbo of war economy, see the work of Mark Duffield. On humanitarian donorship practice, see initiatives like the Overseas Development Institute’s Good Humanitarian Donorship. On the specifics of the Cambodian aid embargo, see for example Punishing the Poor, which Oxfam has made freely available here.

[2] Find here an assistant law professor’s extended discussion on the nature of recognition, including the question ‘How much recognition is needed?’

[3] Nadia abu Shanab elaborates on this lack of access around minute 32 of this Te Kuaka podcast by NZ Alternative.

[4] The UN Special Rapporteur has outlined the roles and responsibilities of states in his 2019 report   A/74/507, the Security Council’s failure to impose the costs obliged by its own resolutions and international law in his 2020 report A/75/532, and the roles played by key multilateral groups in his 2021 report A/76/433.

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