Speech To The Returned Servicemen's Association Of New Zealand National CouncilWar Pensions
Thank you for inviting me to address your National Council today.
I would like to address you today both on matters pertaining to my responsibilities as Minister in charge of War Pensions and also, if time permits, as Foreign Minister, to brief you on current activities of New Zealand Forces overseas working in zones of conflict and humanitarian need, much as your members have done over the last century.
Servicemen and women occupy a unique position within our society - and one that is not always recognised in the way that it should be.
They swear allegiance to the Crown and take a solemn oath to serve their country. In so doing they submit themselves to a code of military discipline and law which is additional to the laws of the country that apply to all our citizens.
Service personnel accept this situation and serve their country voluntarily, and they knowingly do forgo the freedom of action and choice enjoyed by all other citizens.
In particular they accept real limitations on their rights of redress from the Crown especially in times of war and during military operations.
They place their lives and their welfare at the disposal of the Government and they acknowledge that the Government can deploy and employ them wherever it wishes to do so and accept that the Government can commit them compulsorily to situations in which their lives are at risk; that ultimately their service to their country may result in the loss of their life.
They also accept that their lives, and their health, may be at risk from the environments in which they are deployed.
The nature of military service places a special reciprocal obligation on Governments to safeguard the well being of the Service personnel who act in their interests and those of the citizens they represent.
The Government's responsibility in this regard is embodied in the War Pensions Act 1954.
A basic principle of the Act is to give the veteran the benefit of the doubt in terms of demonstrating the attribution of a condition to his or her military service.
Against this background, you will all be very aware of the independent Inquiry into the Health Status of Children of Vietnam and Operation Grapple Veterans, headed by Sir Paul Reeves, which was presented to the Prime Minister last week.
The report did not find any definite links between the exposure of veterans and health problems in their children, with the possible exception of spina bifida.
This was an independent report and it is unfair to portray its findings as anything other than what they were - an analysis of the scientific evidence as well as the views of those veterans and more especially, their families, as a result of involvement in respective military actions.
I note that epidemiologist Dr Mark Elwood, speaking on the Kim Hill radio show last week, said:
"??for every other reproductive outcome which was assessed in the same studies, that includes other types of congenital defects, problems with fertility and so on, there was really no consistent evidence of an increased risk."
He went on: "??..the totality of the evidence for every outcome which has been looked at, other than spina bifida, suggests that there's no relationship."
Unfortunately, this is pretty thin gruel.
There would be nothing the Government would like more than certainty on this issue, to wrap up this long running and sorrowful saga once and for all, but we do acknowledge that no Government faced with similar problems has yet to find that level of certainty and therefore a satisfactory conclusion.
The Government has given a guarantee - which I repeat here today - that we will carefully study the report and make provision for those to whom the report gives the "benefit of scientific doubt". We will err on the side of generosity.
The Government also made the decision not to provide funding for the nuclear test veterans who wanted to take a case against the British Government based on the perceived ill affects of exposure to British atmospheric tests in the Pacific in the 1950's.
This was not a decision taken lightly.
The Coalition Agreement signed by the National and New Zealand First parties in 1996 did make provision, and I quote from the Coalition Agreement document here " to fund up to $200,000 in legal expenses for a possible class action by New Zealand veterans against the United Kingdom Government."
The reality was that this money was never going to go to Veterans to study the likely success of taking a case, the wording was very clear - it would have gone straight to the lawyers and would have been a drop in the bucket.
Following the demise of the Coalition, the new administration felt in all conscience it could not advance money for this action, and to have done so would be to create an unjustified level of confidence in the outcome of such an action.
The facts the Government had to face were:
1. The UK Government would not roll over and plead guilty. The UK courts have not accepted a case brought by their own Operation grapple veterans.
2. The $200,000 would have represented small change to the total legal bill of London Queen's Counsel's, fighting on behalf of the veterans over an extended period of time.
3. The NZ Navy responded to a request so it was, therefore, a decision of the New Zealand Government, not the United Kingdom Government.
4. British Veterans have so far had no success in taking their Government to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.
Rt. Hon Winston Peters may wish to argue otherwise, but in his 20 or so months in Cabinet he not once, to my knowledge, brought a proposal to the table to fund such an action - despite him insisting it be added to the Coalition Agreement.
I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions from that, but I will give credit where it is due - Mr Peters did argue for, and got acceptance for, the provision of a pension for these very same veterans, which was a very practical way of providing immediate assistance in the form of an immediate benefit.
I will give you with this assurance - the dollar amount of assistance that this Government will give to the children of veterans, once we have studied Sir Paul Reeves report, will be greater that the $200,000 that the Coalition Agreement promised to fund a possible court case, and it will certainly have a greater impact on their lives.
WAR PENSIONS ADMINISTRATION
As at September 30, 1998 there were 21,044 war disablement pensioners and 4,288 surviving spouse pensioners.
While the current numbers of war disablement pensions have remained relatively stable in the last 16 years only 4,000 of the total pensioner number are under 70 years of age.
The changes to war pensions administration will:
§ Extend direct services to war pensioners by extending call centre and shop front services;
§ Ensure uniformity of services that are of high quality;
§ Ensure limited staff experience is protected, developed and trained;
§ Establish and maintain accountability lines of responsibility through the Secretary for War Pensions as the law requires;
§ Ensure that the war pension process is responsive to the decrease in required services over the next 10 years; and
§ See the development of a new database that is Y2K compliant.
These proposed changes will lead to:
§ Clear separation of the delegated duties of the Secretary from the day to day war pensions administration;
§ Clear accountability lines back to the Secretary for War Pensions who is by law responsible for war pensions administration;
§ Ensure that all staff are trained to an expert standard;
§ The development of a war pension system in one location;
and § Extension of services for war pensioners into individual RSA premises.
This system of taking services to the pensioners in the RSA setting has been trialed in Blenheim with great success. Your District Presidents when they met in Hamilton in May agreed to work with the War Pensions Central Processing Unit to establish these 'clinics' nation-wide. This is a natural next step in the partnership process between War Pension administration and the RSA, the first step having been the unique war pension decision making process this country enjoys.
In the Bill currently before Parliament, I am aware of your very firm thoughts on the placement of District offices. I'm sure we can resolve this issue, and your submission to the Select Committee will be invaluable to the debate.
OFFICE OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
The Prime Minister spoke about this development yesterday, so I will not dwell on it long, except to say that I am personally very pleased that the Government decided to establish an Office of Veterans Affairs as of 1 July this year.
This is a significant move and we hope it will address members concerns about how seriously the Government takes the needs of former servicemen and women. The new Office will helpfully locate under one roof - the disparate services that veterans need to access.
This is your last RSA Conference this century, and it seems appropriate to look back and see what lessons can be learned from the last 100 years.
One of the lessons is that when we try to predict the road ahead we still tend to be overly optimistic. The architects of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 hoped that the League of Nations would provide lasting peace. Those at San Francisco who later brought the United Nations into being hoped and expected the same.
The League's history speaks for itself, but perhaps the optimism of those involved with the UN hasn't been entirely misplaced. The UN has been successful in reducing the threat of conflict, and in providing the foundations of a growing body of international law and convention.
It is no accident that we have seen in the last decade the establishment of International Tribunals for Rwanda and Yugoslavia, vigorous discussion on the need to do likewise in Cambodia, and the creation of an International Criminal Court.
Such foundations have raised the standards of acceptable international behaviour. They have added to the moral pressure on those who would contemplate going to war to achieve their ends. And they have set in place other mechanisms for the international dispute resolution.
An associated lesson from this century is that we should be well prepared for a wide range of contingencies. In the military field, that has implications for the sort of equipment bought for our Defence Forces, and the training they need.
And a third lesson concerns the way in which we advance our security interests. For a geographically remote nation like ours, with global trading interests, the constant feature of our security policy - which has stood us in such good stead, and which will continue to do so - is collective security.
Collective security is all about contributing, even when there is a fairly high level of tranquillity in one's own backyard.
In New Zealand's case, that has entailed tremendous sacrifices from all those military personnel who various Governments sent around the world over the last 100 years.
And that is despite the fact that most military operations where we deploy NZDF personnel these days are not to wage war but to keep the peace.
In my nine years as Foreign Minister I've always had the highest confidence in our armed forces when recommending to my Cabinet colleagues their deployment to many parts of the world, and I have never been let down or had that confidence shattered. They have always maintained the highest level of performance - they are always great New Zealand ambassadors.
Wherever I travel today I get congratulation from people everywhere for work done by our troops; Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Angola, Bosnia, Bougainville, the Sinai, Laos, Iraq, Kuwait, to name some, and all these activities in this decade alone!
Last year was in fact the 50th anniversary of UN peacekeeping, despite the fact that nowhere in the UN Charter does the word, ?peacekeeping? actually appear. And yet, the blue beret or blue helmet is one of the most enduring and visual symbols of the UN.
UN peacekeeping, too, has undergone its fair share of adjustment over the years with a pronounced decline in the UN's pre-eminence in peacekeeping.
When I spoke to this audience in the early 1990s, the UN had 75,000 peacekeepers deployed in the field. Today, that figure has shrunk to 12,000. What was a $6 billion UN activity in 1994 has reduced to one fifth of that size this year.
And yet, the need for peacekeeping and peacekeepers hasn't changed as dramatically as these figures suggest. There are still roughly 75,000 number of peacekeepers or peace-enforcers deployed today. The difference is that nations now contribute such troops to regional arrangements or other groupings: so-called, ?coalitions of the willing.?
New Zealand has over 100 NZDF personnel serving on peacekeeping missions but only one in every five of those has a UN badge stitched on his or her shoulder. The personnel we have in Bosnia, Bougainville, and the Sinai remain our biggest deployments, and - while they have the sanction of the UN - they are all coalitions of the willing rather than being under UN command and control.
Perhaps what we have seen recently in Kosovo was the lowpoint for the UN. I hope so.
Kosovo showed that the standards set for acceptable human behaviour this century have continued to rise, while the threshold of tolerance has been lowered at which the international community feels it must act. NATO's action was a grave step, but it was understandable and justified in the circumstances.
Kosovo, however, also found the UN unable to respond fully to the humanitarian tragedy and conflict which was unfolding there. It proved beyond the Security Council to agree on a resolution authorising intervention.
Yet, even in Kosovo, the shuttle diplomacy of recent weeks towards a settlement have not occurred without the UN playing its part. Its humanitarian agencies have been closely involved in dealing with the refugee crisis.
Similarly, in East Timor, the United Nations has successfully brokered an agreement between Indonesia and Portugal to address a long-running political sore in our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood.
The UN has the central role and responsibility for conducting a ballot on 8 August. It is now in the process of deploying electoral experts, civilian Police, including 10 from New Zealand, who left last weekend, and Military
Liaison Officers for the ballot
The big question about the East Timor exercise is whether Indonesia will meet its responsibility to ensure that security conditions are such that the UN can conduct its ballot in a free and fair atmosphere.
Last month, the UN Secretary-General said this, ?Unless the Security Council is restored to its pre-eminent position as the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force, we are on a dangerous path to anarchy.?
Kofi Annan went on to say, ?Equally importantly, unless the Security Council can unite around the aim of confronting massive human rights violations and crimes against humanity...we will betray the very ideals that inspired the founding of the United Nations.?
Those, ladies and gentlemen, are sobering statements for all New Zealanders.
We want a Security Council that can respond, and rapidly, to the major excesses of 'peoples against peoples' behaviour.
We want a Security Council that can be depended upon to do this.
We want a Security Council that truly reflects what people expect from an organisation that upholds peoples basic rights.
We want a Security Council that maintains a high level of integrity and credibility.
We must continue to invest in UN peacekeeping and continue to keep faith with the UN as the source of international law and rules.
It may have its ups and downs, and none more so than in the 1990s. But the UN's strengths far outweigh its deficiencies. The UN must remain the cornerstone of New Zealand's collective security policy.
Members of the New Zealand Armed Forces, on the eve of the 21st Century, go into the new millennium with the knowledge that those who have soldiered before them over the last 100 years, set a very high standard, and that that can only be maintained if the New Zealand public remain supportive of, and sympathetic to, the role of our Armed Forces.