Louisa Wall compares human rights abuses in China to atrocities in Ukraine, calls for ability to sanction 'corrupt actors'

Outgoing Labour MP Louisa Wall has compared human rights abuses in China to atrocities in Ukraine and wants New Zealand to adopt legislation to direct sanctions at other "corrupt actors".

In an interview with Newshub on Monday, Wall said she's been "not afraid to speak out" against China, New Zealand's largest trading partner.

For the last two years, Wall has been a co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a group made up of politicians from around the world who monitor the actions of the Asian superpower. 

They frequently criticise events in China, including the ongoing oppression of the Uighur people in Xinjiang and the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. However, some of Wall's comments have gone further than the Government line and led Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to distance herself from her own MP.

"I've probably been privy to information and decided that in my role as IPAC co-chair, with [National's] Simon O'Connor and I want to acknowledge all the work that he's done, we've used our voices," Wall told Newshub.

"We've been parliamentarians who are not afraid to speak out and say what's happening is wrong."

Wall said New Zealand needs modern slavery legislation - something the Government just last week sent out for public consultation - as well as to "address sanctions against corrupt actors and human rights abusers".

While New Zealand passed the Russia Sanctions Act in March, allowing Aotearoa to impose economic sanctions on individuals linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Wall said "we need broader law reform".

"I would like some of the sanctions that we've used, the mechanism to implement these sanctions, be able to use for anybody who's corrupt and anybody who abuses human rights to a degree where you have the atrocities that we currently see in Ukraine.

"I think some of those atrocities, from the evidence I've seen, are occurring in other parts of the world and, yes, China is one of those."

Asked about Wall's comments on Monday, Ardern said the situation in Ukraine is "an immediate invasion of a sovereign territory". 

"The whole world can see the situation Ukraine is in right now is unique, which is why the global response is unique."

She says she's "not afraid to speak out".
She says she's "not afraid to speak out". Photo credit: Newshub.

Wall doesn't want to see a repeat of what happened in March, where New Zealand quickly enacted travel bans but took longer to direct economic sanctions at Russia because it had no framework in place. Our international partners enacted sanctions within a matter of days of Russian troops crossing the Ukrainian border.

"I think we need a framework that isn't responsive, that is already in place so that when these atrocities happen, we can do so immediately because we have the tools to join an international community that condemns these types of atrocities."

Before the Russia Sanctions Act came about, New Zealand wasn't able to impose economic sanctions autonomously, instead relying on United Nations sign-off. That was never going to happen due to Russia's veto power on the UN Security Council. Labour last year voted down a Member's Bill from National's Gerry Brownlee that would have created an autonomous sanctions regime, saying it wasn't fit for purpose. 

Ardern said last month that the Government will continue to seek advice on a full autonomous regime, but that the Russia Sanctions Act allowed the Government to act quickly.

Russia has faced unprecedented sanctions from the international community since it invaded Ukraine in late February. New Zealand has put travel bans and asset freezes on hundreds of Russian and Belarusian officials. It also supported Russia's suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

The discovery bodies strewn over the streets of Bucha, outside the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, and other atrocities there led Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to say Russia was committing "war crimes" and "genocide". 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The tricky relationship with China

China is New Zealand's largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth upwards of $33 billion. While the Labour Government has consistently voiced concern about the treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, critics have argued that New Zealand hasn't gone as far as it could have out of fear of the repercussions that could have on our economic relationship. 

According to international reports and testimonials, 1 million Uighur Muslims are kept in Xinjiang at concentration camps subject to forced sterilisation and labour as authorities attempt to eradicate their religion and suppress birth rates. China denies those allegations, saying the centres are for vocational education and counter-terrorism. 

The United States began referring to the situation in Xinjiang as "genocide" in the final days of the Donald Trump administration and has continued that stance under President Joe Biden. It slapped sanctions on officials linked to the actions in the Chinese province. 

Last year, a parliamentary motion from the ACT Party to declare a genocide is happening in Xinjiang was watered down to say "human rights abuses". Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said at the time that the concept of 'genocide' is tied to international law and such a declaration should only come after a "rigorous assessment".

Footage of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Footage of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Photo credit: Youtube.

Wall understands there is a high threshold for the Government.

"I think the level of evidence required is different for the Government. We've always been really clear that crimes against humanity, crimes that are so atrocious that we need to speak out about them are usually delivered by a court. We have waited for an international institution to do that." 

New Zealand and other countries have long called for China to allow international authorities unfettered access to Xinjiang. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet will finally head there in May.

Wall said her assessment of abuses in China has been based on evidence presented to a tribunal in the United Kingdom chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice

"It's not legally sufficient for the Government, but from my perspective and many other parliamentarians around the world, it has been sufficient for them to say that these abuses are happening and we must do everything we can to hold China accountable for their atrocious human rights violations."

The outgoing MP said her role with IPAC was motivated by events in Hong Kong, where the Chinese mainland has introduced a national security law in an attempt to shut down dissent.

"Recently, there's been incarcerations because people have attended various events and clapped. That's seen to be actions against the state, which is pretty horrific for any of us to contemplate that actually showing mild applause for something would mean you could be incarcerated and face criminal prosecution."

Wall has continued to speak out against abuses in China despite its often vociferous response to opposition. Last year, Newshub reported that Wall and O'Connor were told by IPAC that members could be the targets of cyber attacks. 

Ahead of the vote last year on ACT's Xinjiang motion, Mahuta said she was seeking advice from her officials about what the "process and considerations are which go into determining a genocide".

In a speech to the NZ China Council at the time, the minister said there are issues New Zealand and China "do not, cannot and will not agree".

"Matters such as human rights should be approached in a consistent, country agnostic manner. We will not ignore the severity and impact of any particular country's actions if they conflict with our longstanding and formal commitment to universal human rights."

To ensure New Zealand has long-term economic resilience, Mahuta said we need to "understand that there is value in diversity" and that it "is prudent not to pull all eggs in one basket".

Ardern has raised human rights abuses with Chinese President Xi Jinping on numerous occasions, including when meeting him in Beijing in 2019.