Monday, March 15, 2010

Peter Bethune

On Friday, anti-whaling activist Peter Bethune arrived in Japan, and was arrested for illegally boarding a Japanese whaling ship. Since then, there has been a storm of protest in New Zealand, with demands for the government to step in and ensure Bethune's release. In response, the government has said that they cannot intervene in Japan's legal processes. Mostly, this is making excuses - the prosecution is transparently political, an act of vengeance against a protestor who has successfully shamed Japan in the eyes of the world and exposed its aggressive and unlawful actions in the Southern Ocean (pro-whaling National is probably right behind that, and wishes they could do it here - their fans in the Kiwiblog Right certainly are). But formally, at least, they're right. But that doesn't mean they should wash their hands of the affair and hang Bethune out to dry.

According to the US State Department's 2009 annual human rights country report, Japan has significant problems around fair trials and detention conditions. Australian Senator Bob Brown alludes to this when he says that their courts "have nearly a 100 per cent conviction rate". According to the US State Department Report, they achieve this by coerced confessions, lengthy pre-trial detention during which defendants are interrogated without access to legal counsel, and stacked trial procedures which favour the prosecution. Once convicted, prisoners (particularly foreigners) are frequently subject to abuse and solitary confinement, while poor conditions, notably lack of heating in winter, results in preventable injuries and illnesses.

The New Zealand government should not abandon any of its citizens to this sort of system. It should make it clear to the Japanese authorities that it will be watching the trial like a hawk, to ensure that it is fair and abides by international standards. If Bethune is convicted, they should monitor his detention to ensure that it too meets international standards. And they should make it clear that any failure to provide a fair trial or any abuse in prison will result in diplomatic protest and complaints to UN human rights bodies.

The government won't want to do this. we should make them. Our government should look out for all its citizens, no matter where they are, and no matter what their political opinion. And if they fail in this, we should hold them accountable for it.