Waihopai Ploughshares Reflection

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 59, Advent 2011

Gerard Burns

The actions of the Waihopai 3 have aroused much comment about the moral legitimacy of their actions. Some have taken the position that this is a simple case of vandalism, that government property has been damaged and that the Ploughshares group deserve to suffer the full force of the law including paying repair costs.

There has also been criticism of the jury that found the trio not guilty and that the ‘claim of right’ defence is dangerous to good order. Following the first trial Sir Bruce Ferguson and Warwick Tucker, current and past heads of the Government Communications Security Bureau, put out a statement. They said Waihopai is not a US spybase in our midst, that it is totally operated and controlled by NZ and is not contributing to torture, war, use of weapons of mass destruction or other unspeakable evil. Quite the reverse they say.

How are we to evaluate these various claims from a Catholic viewpoint? How can we draw on the Scriptures, our Catholic tradition and teaching to asses Aotearoa New Zealand intelligence and military links? This country is part of a politico-military-intelligence network under the leadership of the West’s superpower, the USA. This US-led alliance does not totally direct all aspects of our politico-economic direction (eg, NZ’s nuclear-weapons-free policy).

However in terms of intelligence gathering we are very much part of the Echelon network involving the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. Research done on this system shows electronic intelligence is gathered through bases such as Waihopai and shared with other Echelon countries. NZ seems to have gathered intelligence on our Pacific and Asian neighbours and on non-Echelon members who are part of the Western alliance (eg, France).

This could mean that the intelligence gathered here in NZ is actually passed on and analyzed in other Echelon countries for their own purposes. We know that certainly the US and UK have been involved in things like extraordinary renditions and torture (sometimes in third countries such as Libya, Morrocco, Poland, etc). We know they have collaborated with authoritarian regimes (eg, Libya, Colombia) which have imprisoned and tortured human rights and Church workers. We know the US has worked to overthrow democratically-elected regimes (eg, Chile).

The Echelon system is tied in to these practices. It may be that some restrictions have been placed on what is done on NZ soil at different times but it is hard to argue that NZ is only involved in morally irreproachable activities. Waihopai is a spybase after all. It is part of a power system that may bring some good but is still designed to guarantee US/Western dominance. This inevitably has a military component (thus Iraq and Afghan wars). It has an economic component (thus pressure on NZ over its Pharmac drug-buying agency). It has an environmental component (access to oil, minerals).

How do we make a moral evaluation of NZ’s participation in the US-led Western alliance? How do we evaluate our intelligence services part in that alliance? Do we just accept it blindly? Do we say that it’s a sad but necessary price for the good life we enjoy? Do we say it’s that’s it’s not perfect but it’s better than the alternatives? Have we been sucked into the narrative that the threats to ‘us’ are many and that we must accept a creeping securitization and surveillance of our society? Is this what has led to the suspicion of movements for social change as evidenced in the recent Urewera trial arrests?

Certainly NZ’s participation may bring benefits to some or even to many in this country. But for Catholics does this tie our country into practices that are unacceptable? Can we take the word of the heads of NZ’s security services that they are involved only in good activities?

I think we would be naive to do this. The Australian, US and NZ intelligence services knew about the Indonesian military invasion of East Timor in 1975 and its atrocities but let it happen because it suited the West’s strategic priorities. Some 200,000 people died as a result of that cold political calculation. Better that they die for the greater (Western) good. How much has this changed?

I have met members of the security services of great personal integrity and who have shown me personal kindness but this question is one of NZ’s structural alliances. At that level this country is an integral part of a controlling and militaristic system.

That system is dependent on arms production and use. The NZ government may have put some restrictions on NZ’s military and intelligence involvement in the Iraq war but we are still involved in the Afghan war and perhaps other wars. The individual heroism of some soldiers does not take away the question: what are we really part of?

As followers of Jesus Christ who was put to death at the hands of an occupying military power we should have an automatic suspicion of empires. As Catholics whose papal leadership has taken a strong stand against war, nuclear weapons and arms production we need to evaluate our military and intelligence links.

This is not to say that the actions of the Waihopai 3 are beyond critique but it is to say they are asking Gospel-based questions and are seeking to live out the social justice teachings and traditions of our Church. It is not enough to say that they are lawbreakers and therefore clearly need to be punished, without looking at the bigger context. It is not enough to criticise their acquittal as due to the ignorance of the jury. The jury considered seriously the case and came to a legitimate conclusion.

If we are worried about the example that is set for our children then we should also be worried about uncritical acceptance of our country’s alliances. I have been impressed by the spirit of prayer, fasting and courage shown by the Waihopai 3. This has been attractive to the young especially. It also impressed the jury. Why is it so threatening for many Catholics?

Mgr. Gerard Burns is the Vicar-General of the Archdiocese of Wellington and a prominent peace and justice advocate. This article first appeared in Welcom and is reprinted with permission.

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