Opinion: Government should not sign UN Migration Compact

Dec 08, 2018

Next week, New Zealand is expected to sign the United Nations’ Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. While it is non-binding, the protocol could still damage New Zealanders’ right to free speech and debate.

The Free Speech Coalition is indifferent on immigration policy matters; reasonable people can agree to disagree. However, the Government should not be signing an agreement that says it will seek to restrict free speech on immigration matters.

Objective 17 of the Compact looks to prevent critical speech of immigration policies in an attempt to combat xenophobia and racism. The problem with this is that many legitimate and genuine concerns about immigration are framed as ‘racist’ by some people. The Compact says that governments should defund media which report “intolerant” views. It goes further and says they should be denied “support”, which seems to mean the government should interfere with private funding. Almost any unwelcome truth can be termed “intolerant”, so the Compact will be a tool to suppress New Zealanders speaking their minds.

The Compact encourages signatory nations to "enact, implement or maintain legislation that penalizes hate crimes...". The problem here is there is that common definitions of "hate crime" may extend to so called "hate speech" which can often mean "hearing truths we hate". The Compact will therefore support interpretations of existing law that give authorities the power to suppress unpopular opinions and be used to claim that we must get new law to restrict unwelcome discussion of politically awkward or embarrassing information. The Compact will be used to claim that we must have such law to retain international respectability

Probably well-intentioned hate speech laws have been implemented in Sweden, Britain, and France. As they have worked out citizens have been prosecuted for merely speaking their mind or highlighting issues the authorities would rather not debate, or have debated.

FSC supports out traditional law against incitement of violence. The Compact says we must seek to go much further. FSC says New Zealand must remain free to have open frank debate about immigration. The Compact says the state should strongly promote one side of the argument and gag the other.

It is claimed that we should not worry because the Compact is not binding, only aspirational. It should not be an aspiration of New Zealand to align with forces that threaten free speech. Immigration is a core issue for nation states. In democracies like ours, there is a legitimate expectation that all sides can be heard on this complicated issue. This agreement says the state’s powers and resources should weigh in on one side, against the other. 

The compact threatens the independence of our fourth estate. The Compact says the state must encourage ‘independent’ and ‘objective reporting’ on migration issues. It is easy to fear the opposite intention in a country where the media are presently independent without any coercive restrictions on objectivity. The Compact seems to mean the opposite. It calls for ‘sensitising’ and ‘educating’ reporters on terminology and appropriate message. State sanitising the fourth estate is dangerous to democracy, and not compatible with a free society.

The provisions seems to seek deplatforming of views inconsistent with the Compact’s view of objectivity, by defunding outlets which convey them. Given the pervasive role of government in our society, if the Compact justifies discrimination by all state connected advertisers against outlets that convey the side of a debate that the government considers to be not objective or helpful or tolerant, that could dramatically affect New Zealanders’ practical ability to seek and to impart views and information. Our current broadcasting regulations require “balance”. Will they be amended or reinterpreted to reflect a view that it need not extend to views unwelcome to the United Nations on immigration and immigrants?

The compact is legally non-binding but that does not mean it has no effect. The New Zealand judiciary often interprets New Zealand laws in light the non-binding treaties our Government has signed. We should not sign up to agreements if we do not intend to honour their spirit. And this compact includes provision for stifling free expression.

Twenty countries have already rejected the Compact, including Australia and the United States. The New Zealand Government should do the same.

Patrick Corish is a coordinator at the Free Speech Coalition - a bipartisan group protecting and promoting the rights of free speech in New Zealand.