Student politics: Arena Williams & the SJP

Let me clear up a few potential biases before I start. I am a Maori Law student. I know Arena Williams. I am not an AUSA member nor am I a member of SJP; however, I am affiliated with Te Rakau Ture. None of these organisations or its members have commissioned this post, nor have I sought endorsements from any of them, including Arena.
Recently, President of AUSA, Arena Williams was invited on a trip to Israel. She took unpaid leave from her role as President to go on this trip, which was granted by the AUSA Exec team. The backlash has been severe from the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and has created significant level of rhetoric as to the duties and obligations of Arena in her role as President and what she can and cannot do in her own time.  

The SJP have taken exception to the decision of Arena Williams who accepted an invitation to visit Israel on unpaid leave from her role as President of the AUSA which was granted by the AUSA exec. In response the SJP issued the following statements:  

“In July, the AUSA President took a ten day trip to visit illegal Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine. The trip was funded by the Israeli government which targeted two prominent young leaders from both Young Labour and Young Nats and our AUSA president”
“…what message is AUSA sending its students when its president is visiting a country that is facing heated political criticism by academics, lawyers, politicians and student bodies internationally? And what exactly does this trip reflect in regards to AUSA’s policies? In our eyes it reflects a serious biasness for the Israeli view and one that is detrimental to the Palestinian BDS movement.  Ignoring the international boycott movement which has been recognised by much of the International community, universities throughout the world,  our AUSA president proceeded to visit the Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine, settlements which have categorised as ‘illegal’ under International law, and even by the United States
Additionally, the SJP have demanded an apology which they believe is justified on the following assertions:

Students for Justice in Palestine call for an official apology from the President of our Students’ Association, Arena Williams, for her:
  1. For her disregard for human rights
  2. For visiting an apartheid country under an international boycott
  3. For being unfair and bias on such a contentious issue
  4. For not representing or consulting with students
  5. For not adequately addressing student concerns after they had been raised directly with her
  6. For not being direct, transparent or inclusive
  7. For her disregard for New Zealand’s long history of social justice, especially since AUSA stood up against South African apartheid in the 80’s by supporting the international boycott movement.

On point 5 above, when the issue was raised with Arena, she met with members of the SJP and agreed to make a statement as to her reasons for visiting Israel. This article was published in Craccum, and Arena made clear that her reasons were personal, and that she was not representing the views of AUSA, hence ensuring that she was on unpaid leave to remove any doubt of a perceived conflict of interest.

On point 1 above, the Craccum article indicates that Arena was in fact passionate about understanding the conflict between Palestine and Israel, evidenced by her admission of engaging in discussion, extensive reading, and debate about the issues. A person with this level of curiosity and thirst for understanding, is in my view, not the kind of person who could be characterised as having a disregard for human rights. I would have thought the contrary to be true, since a person who takes an interest in trying to understand injustices and conflict is more likely to care a great deal about human rights. Additionally, a student known to be very politically active and who accepted a role as AUSA president is surely indicative of someone who seeks fairness and justice.
On point 4, the SJP are arguing that Arena should have represented students on the one hand, while on the other hand claiming that by virtue of her role as President of AUSA she was representing students. The implication is that Palestinian students or those who support SJP were not represented. This is difficult, since the AUSA represent a diverse student body, raising the probability of grievances among those they represent. My point is that, had Arena attended a Palestinian hosted event, then Israeli students may have reacted in much the same way as the SJP.

On point 2 above, if there were an international boycott, then surely the NZ government would have voiced its own denunciation of the invitation by the Israeli government. Note, that I do not endorse at all the inhumane treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government, nor do I accept the treatment of Israeli’s by Palestinians (I am a pacifist and do not support any kind of violence). Additionally, it was perhaps not the best example to use the United States to illustrate a country that disapprove of the Israeli tactics, given the US have provided a significantly larger amount of aid to Israel than it has to Palestine.  

On point 3 above, the assumption is that if the Palestinian government had made the same offer to Arena, that she would have turned it down. As far as I am aware, she has not made such an assertion, and given her explanation in Craccum, I suspect that she would have accepted such an offer to give her the wide ranging view of the issues since it is an issue she feels deeply and passionately about.

I do have to say though, the absolute kicker here is point 7 above. This is seriously flawed. New Zealand does not have a long history of social justice. Do the SJP have any understanding about the impact of the Treaty of Waitangi on Maori? I do not mean to insult anyone’s intelligence here, but to make that assertion is insulting to all Maori subject to the ongoing injustices of the past. Do the SJP accept that their assertion about the long history of social justice in New Zealand is effectively an endorsement of colonisation and the displacement and dispossession of an entire indigenous population? Moreover, that the ongoing breaches of Te Tiriti and the refusal of the Crown to acknowledge the Maori version is indicative that colonisation is still very real for Maori? 

The main issue as I perceive it is this: whether a President of a student body has a right to carry out activities in their personal time that may come into conflict with their role as President.

I framed it as a rights issue because much of the discourse has revolved around s14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (NZ BORA) – the right to freedom of expression.

The level of obligation and accountability expected by SJP exceeds, in my view, what could be reasonable in a free and democratic society. It was argued that the freedom of expression right is not absolute. This is true. But is it true in this case? The right entitles the individual to seek, impart or receive any opinion in any form. The purpose of the act is to limit state interference on the rights of individuals. The SJP imply that there is some civil standard on which Arena’s choice to extend her learning and understanding in certain areas must be limited by virtue of her status as President of the AUSA. However, unless there is some state authorised regulation that limits Arena’s right to engage in political affairs in her own time, then she cannot and in fact should not be forced to make an apology.

I want to acknowledge here that the SJP is most certainly an admirable and worthwhile cause in advocating for human rights. My heart goes out to any human being individually or collectively who is the subject or subjects of hatred and oppression. However, Arena was not in my view advocating for the Israeli government in attending the trip they hosted. She was simply exercising a great degree of tolerance in accepting the invitation in her quest for understanding the conflict, and she did this in her own time, as Arena Williams and not as President of the AUSA. Members or supporters of the SJP suggested that as President of AUSA, Arena must always be representing students whether on paid or unpaid leave for the entire tenure of her role. If that is the case, then that is the directive that she should have received when she was sworn into the role. If we look comparatively at the Prime Ministers choice to watch his son play baseball in the US instead of attending a fallen soldiers funeral – was he at that baseball game acting in his capacity as Prime Minister or as a father? This was a highly contentious point in New Zealand, albeit for different reasons, but it highlights that people are not always acting in their official duties and that they are entitled to act in their personal capacity, especially if they make that clear, whether we agree with it or not. Is that not what democracy is about? 

The SJP are holding an event in which Arena Williams has signalled that she will attend. For anyone interested in attending follow this link:  https://www.facebook.com/events/497169913645441/
The event will take place at 1300hrs on Wednesday 12 September in the University of Auckland Quad. 
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