It is often held that New Zealand punches ‘above its weight’ in many a competition, whether it’s good or bad to be the winner. Assertions bringing this cliché to mind are not difficult to locate. Whether in the context of sporting achievements or important strategic partnerships, we often hear that New Zealand is one of the best pound-for-pound punchers around.
This is just as well, because in the international political arena, weight class is hardly to this country’s advantage. New Zealand, like other small countries, has a very limited ability to affect global politics through the use of its resources alone. Small countries the world over usually understand this reality. Some choose to look inward, keeping international engagement to a minimum. Some make themselves champions of regional cooperation. And some attempt to stand out by cultivating a reputation for doing more than their fair share of ‘do-gooder politics’: contributing to international efforts that have a moral or ethical flavour to them.
Depending on how (and what) one counts, there are now about 50 global human rights agreements (HRAs) in existence. They cover virtually every human right one can think of: free and fair elections, wage equality, prohibition of torture, elimination of racial discrimination, judicial due process, and the elimination of child labour. Small countries with good rights situations at home can have a real impact here, as instigators of these agreements. The Convention Against Torture had its origins in a proposal submitted to the Swiss government. Sweden took a leading role in negotiations on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, writing one of two proposals. While this effort faltered, its renewed moment owed a good deal to New Zealand’s efforts. This connection is interesting, and New Zealand’s Office for Disability Issues emphasises it. But how does New Zealand stack up across the board on HRA activity?
Thanks to a new resource, the Database of UN Human Rights Agreements, we can answer this question in a systematic way. How enthusiastic is New Zealand about bringing these agreements home to be recognised as formally binding? In comparing New Zealand to other advanced democracies, Figure 1 shows the total number of HRAs each country has ratified. Interestingly, small countries don’t appear to be more (or less) enthusiastic about ratification than medium-sized countries are. New Zealand is very much in the middle of the pack: well-ahead of laggard giants like the US and Japan, but no further ahead than Australia, and behind Norway, the Netherlands, and Germany.
Looking at other areas such as contributions to international peacekeeping, one would likely find similar gaps between myth and empirical reality. Perhaps the discourse will catch up with the facts. But for the time being, with a temporary seat at one of the most important tables in the world, New Zealand might as well try to reap benefits from the cliché.
Jana Von Stein is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org