WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Catholic Social Teaching and the international scene

Gerard Burns

New Zealand’s quest for free trade agreements with the USA, China and Pacific Island nations and the detrimental effects this could have on workers, vulnerable groups and small economies would contravene Catholic social teaching.

The voices of those who do not benefit from such policies are at least as important as the interests of those who do.

So-called free trade policies are generally aimed at favouring large business interests seeking expanded markets and greater profits. Free trade agreements facilitate this at an international level. Widespread discussion of agreements is rare because of the size and complexity of the negotiations but also because publicity about the downside of such agreements would corrode public support. These treaties are not usually subject to a popular vote.

A free trade agreement with China is based on that country’s cheap labour and lack of environmental enforcement and expanded possibilities for NZ’s dairy industry. It militates against Chinese labour rights, jobs in NZ and care for the earth.

In the Pacific NZ’s support for free trade policies and agreements means the undermining of small, local economies and the swamping of those islands with foreign goods. Economic sovereignty is further diminished.

Catholic social teaching asks us to analyze these issues in the light of the gospel to see if some are unfairly favoured over others. It then draws on the principles of human dignity, the common good (the good of all not just the few must be protected), subsidiarity (decisions about peoples’ lives must be taken at the level closest to them) and solidarity (we are called to stand with and share the burdens of those who are suffering).

The church proposes a model of society where people can participate fully and equally in the political, economic and social matters that affect them – including the right to self determination.

The common good is not served where the substandard wages of workers in China (or in NZ) are simply for the benefit of shareholders; it is not served by environmental destruction whose effects will be worse for coming generations.

Subsidiarity is not served by having small Pacific states take on trade policies that will affect them greatly and that their peoples know nothing about. There is no solidarity if some sectors of our world’s people have to carry unfair burdens.

John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris (1963) backed institutions that sought the common good at an international level – institutions such as the UN and international law. Both international law and the principle of subsidiarity back the referendum for independence in East Timor and a revision of West Papua’s incorporation into Indonesia. This may challenge the views and interests of local powers like Australia and Indonesia.

Many conflicts around the globe are really about control of vital resources. West Papua is a case in point with its gold mines, gas resources and forests. In the Middle East Western powers have long sought to control the key trade routes and resources water and oil. When Britain and France triumphed in World War I they split the area between them. Britain sought the principal oil fields and control of the Suez Canal.

When the US took over the superpower role it used the state of Israel to influence the region. At the same time the non-establishment of a state for Palestinians has become a running sore. The fact that for decades this people has been denied both its right to self-determination and even more basic rights to security, food and shelter provides fuel for groups threatening retribution against Israel. Bringing this to a just and lasting solution would help this region immensely.

The principles of subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good also apply to the rights of ethnic minorities, especially indigenous peoples, within nation-states. How they apply is the question for Māori in NZ, aborigines in Australia and native Americans within North and South America.

Larger powers need to walk softly and have a great care for the legitimate rights of peoples and nations in the Pacific. It’s very easy when you’re a big power (and NZ is a big power in the Pacific) to simply look after your own interests.