Story: International law

Page 3. New Zealand and international law: a brief history

All images & media in this story

New Zealand became increasingly involved in developing and applying international law as the country took a more prominent place on the international stage. New Zealand joined the International Telegraph Union (the oldest universal international organisation), as early as 1875, followed by the Universal Postal Union in 1892. These two organisations grew out of the need for international regulation and organisation of communications systems.

New Zealand’s treaty with Sweden

Apart from the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s treaty list began with the Treaty of Peace and Commerce, originally signed by the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Sweden in 1654. As a British colony, New Zealand was considered bound by this treaty with Sweden from the date of colonisation in 1840. New Zealand withdrew from the Treaty of Peace and Commerce in 1933, although it remained in force for the United Kingdom.

League of Nations, 1919 to 1939

In 1919 New Zealand became an original member of the League of Nations, set up under the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. From 1920 New Zealand had international responsibilities for Western Samoa under a league mandate. These responsibilities continued under a United Nations Trusteeship Agreement from 1946 until Western Samoa became independent in 1962. New Zealand emphasised the principle of collective responsibility at the League of Nations, notably in opposition to Italy’s 1935 invasion of Abyssinia (Ethopia) and in supporting a peaceful resolution to the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). The League of Nations effectively ceased to function with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

International Labour Organization

New Zealand has been a member of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since it was founded in 1919, although it only became active in the ILO from 1935. Between 1938 and 2003 New Zealand ratified 52 international labour conventions produced by the ILO. These have included conventions on unemployment, forced labour, the 40-hour working week, working conditions of seamen, contracts of employment, paid holidays and rights of organisation.

The changing UN

The United Nations and its agencies have had to constantly adapt in response to a changing world. The United Nations began in 1945 with 51 members, including only three from Africa, one from South Asia, one from South-East Asia, two from the Caribbean and no Pacific countries other than Australia and New Zealand. By 2012 there were 193 member nations of the UN. This increase was the result of the decolonisation of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and by the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

United Nations

New Zealand’s involvement with international law increased greatly from the end of the Second World War with the establishment of the United Nations. A range of international agencies were established from the 1940s onwards that are involved with issues of international concern, such as health, food and agriculture, education, science and culture, civil aviation, maritime matters, monetary and development banking matters, trade, meteorology and refugees.

The Cold War and nuclear weapons

From 1945 to 1991 the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, the United Kingdom and France was reflected in the Cold War, a period of fluctuating military and political tensions. This competition between the nuclear superpowers heightened the need to control atomic weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency was established in 1957, with New Zealand as a founding member. New Zealand was also one of the first signatories to the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968.

France moved its nuclear testing to its territories in the South Pacific in 1963. New Zealand responded by issuing a series of protest notes and, in 1973, sent two naval frigates to join private vessels protesting in the nuclear-testing zone. That same year the New Zealand and Australian governments brought legal proceedings against France in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, seeking to have the atmospheric tests declared illegal. New Zealand revived its claim against France in 1995, challenging the French decision to resume underground nuclear tests. The French ceased nuclear testing in 1996.

Through the 1970s New Zealand played a prominent role, with newly independent Pacific states and Australia, in establishing the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone. In 1985 New Zealand declared itself nuclear free by banning nuclear-armed and nuclear-propelled ships from its ports.

Changing trade relationships

New Zealand’s first post-war trade agreements were with former enemy states: Japan in 1958 and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1959. New Zealand’s trade relations underwent major changes from the 1960s onwards. New markets were opening up, and the United Kingdom, traditionally New Zealand’s major export market, was indicating its intention to join the European Economic Community (later the EU).

As its manufacturing developed, New Zealand entered into a limited free-trade agreement with Australia in 1965, followed 15 years later by the Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement. The rapid development of New Zealand trade with East Asia was marked by the formation of APEC (Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation) in 1989, and by free-trade agreements with a range of Asian nations. These included an agreement for the promotion and protection of international investment with the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1988, followed by a free-trade agreement in 2008. These were the first such agreements China made with an OECD country. Trade agreements are now made in the context of the World Trade Organization (WTO) system, which developed from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) of 1948. The WTO, established in 1994, tries to enable international trade to flow as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible. New Zealand joined the WTO in 1995.

How to cite this page:

K. J. Keith, 'International law - New Zealand and international law: a brief history', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/international-law/page-3 (accessed 16 September 2019)

Story by K. J. Keith, published 20 Jun 2012