New Zealand’s stance on ‘people’s vaccine’ for Covid undermines its principled reputation

Many New Zealanders like to think of their government as a principled actor in international affairs. Discussions of New Zealand’s role in foreign policy in recent years often laud New Zealand’s nuclear-free stance in the 1980s. There is widespread pride in New Zealand’s “independent foreign policy”, including its decision not to go to war in Iraq in 2003.

But the story of New Zealand’s role in the world, historically and today, is much more complex than these cliches would suggest. Documents just released under the Official Information Act provide another example of a murkier world of New Zealand foreign policy decision-making.

They show the ministry of foreign affairs and trade (MFAT) telling the minister of trade’s office in December: “We don’t support the waiver”, in reference to a widely publicised proposal to waive intellectual property rules to share Covid technologies. One of the reasons later given is New Zealand’s “economic interest” in protecting property rights and investments of New Zealand companies, even in the face of widespread civil society support for the move.

In October 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic raging, India and South Africa had approached the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ask for a waiver of intellectual property rights on technologies needed to deal with the pandemic, including patents on vaccines. This became known as the push for a “people’s vaccine”. The agreement establishing the WTO allows a waiver of ordinary rules in “exceptional circumstances”. A global pandemic – sending countries into lengthy lockdowns, ripping through the global south, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the global north – would seem to fit the bill of those “exceptional circumstances”.

Emails released under the Official Information Act show that by December the New Zealand minister of trade’s office appeared to be unaware of New Zealand’s position on the waiver.

The minister of trade’s senior trade adviser asks MFAT officials on 7 December 2020: “… what is our position on the TRIPS waiver?” A senior MFAT official replies the same day: “We don’t support the waiver.” It is not clear what broader discussions informed this position, whether ministers or the cabinet were involved with formulating New Zealand’s position, or whether there was any pushback on MFAT’s statement of New Zealand’s position.

The documents refer to the importance of prioritising commercial concerns for private companies. More specifically, MFAT officials worry relaxing intellectual property rules on Covid technologies might harm New Zealand companies. An MFAT briefing sent on 10 February 2021 to a range of ministers, including the prime minister, underscores that “NZ has economic interest in protecting the property rights and investments of innovative New Zealand health sector companies such as Fisher and Paykel Healthcare”.

New Zealand eventually changed its tune to support the waiver of intellectual property rules – but only after the Biden administration shifted to back the waiver in May. The emails released last month seem to confirm New Zealand changed its position because of the US decision.

The episode sounds alarm bells about decision-making in New Zealand trade and foreign policy. Dialogue on foreign policy is dominated by a privileged few. Despite the efforts of public and civil society groups to engage with the government through op-eds, a petition, a video and an open letter signed by 42 civil society groups, unions and individuals working in relevant fields, the New Zealand foreign affairs ministry appeared to place significant weight on the interests of business.

The correspondence between MFAT and the minister’s office raises the question: who should get to decide New Zealand’s position on key international issues? Who should decide how much weight is placed on the economic interest of New Zealand companies and the health interests of people in New Zealand and around the world, and how are these interests balanced? Are these positions being decided in a democratic way?

And this is not just a problem of democratic process. These decisions have human consequences. Delay on sharing vaccine technology worldwide, as wealthy countries blocked calls for a people’s vaccine, made it more likely that variants of Covid-19 would emerge. New Zealand is now suffering from the effects of this, with the Delta variant this week being responsible for New Zealand’s first community outbreak of Covid-19 since February.

With foreign policy shielded from public scrutiny in New Zealand, these documents provide a rare glimpse of how decisions on issues of crucial international importance seem to be made between officials and ministers. In this case, it was a decision to relax intellectual property rules for Covid-19 vaccines. But what does this tell us about how NZ will decide its global position on other global existential threats like climate change?

We are already lagging behind other countries on climate action. If our international climate policy is driven by the same narrow-minded focus on commercial interests that clearly informed New Zealand’s foreign policy response to the people’s vaccine, then we need to change direction fast.

If the New Zealand government is truly committed to an independent and Indigenous-based foreign policy, as it has claimed, our foreign affairs and trade ministers cannot leave decisions about foreign policy positioning entirely to MFAT officials. Ministers will need to push back more firmly on advice, including advice that equates companies’ interests with New Zealand’s interests, if this government really wants to forge a new direction for foreign policy.

It’s time for foreign policy decision-making to come out of the shadows.

Comments are closed.