Earlier this week, the New Zealand parliament debated an "Autonomous Sanctions Bill" that would give New Zealand a broader ability to impose sanctions on foreign governments/officials. China is not explicitly mentioned in the legislation, but the parliamentary discussion makes clear that some Chinese government actions would likely have been a target. After the debate, the parliament voted and rejected the bill, but the underlying goals of the bill could reemerge in the future in some form.

The legislation was proposed years ago, but was finally discussed in a "first reading" in the New Zealand parliament on September 22. The purpose as stated in the bill is "to enable New Zealand to impose and enforce sanctions autonomously, so as to assist in maintaining or restoring peace and security in response to either a threat to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region or a breach of international peace and security."

Its chief proponent, MP Gerry Brownlee of the National Party (center right), introduced it this way: "This bill establishes a framework for the implementation of autonomous sanctions by New Zealand, to further its aims of enhancing New Zealand's diplomatic capabilities and to enhance the concept of our independent foreign policy." He explained that "when it comes to expressions of disapproval of rule breakers, of human rights abusers, of those who perpetrate acts of aggression or conquest of others, the United Nations falls well short of what might reasonably be expected." The process "is subject to veto power by the permanent five members: the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China," which "often means that meaningful action against perpetrators of, a break up of rules, of international bad behaviour, go unpunished." One of his examples related to China: "And then, of course, the one that no one likes to talk about, and that I think the Government is most concerned about, is the situation in Xinjiang, in China. China refused to enter into talks on even the drafting of a Security Council resolution that called into question abuses against Uyghur people." As a result of the flaws in the UN process, autonomous sanctions could be helpful, in his view.

In terms of the specific application of autonomous sanctions, he noted that "if a country can't sanction another country, then surely it can bring down some autonomous sanctions against individuals, against regimes, or against entities, where their assets might be frozen, their services dispensed with, their ability to enter this country denied, any interaction with them by citizens of this country also put into the 'can't do' list." In recent times, he said, "the countries that do have an autonomous sanctions regime, often referred to as the Magnitsky regulation or law, can bring down sanctions." As an example, he said that "the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada impose some sanctions on actors alleged to be involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China."

Other members of parliament then weighed in. First, the Minister of Foreign Affairs (of the ruling Labour party) expressed skepticism, saying that the bill did not address human rights and issues such as cyber-security explicitly and broadly enough:

the bill fails to take into account the importance of any autonomous sanctions regime implemented today, facing the upholding of human rights at its centre; although much has been spoken about it in the introduction of the bill. In the case of this bill, human rights issues are not considered at all, in contrast with Australia's recent consideration of how human rights could fit within its own autonomous sanctions regime. In addition to this, the bill's focus on the Asia-Pacific region is likely too narrow. The effect of these oversights is that sanctions could not be levelled to respond to severe human rights abuses if they did not constitute a threat to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region. The bill also fails to cover some emerging risks, such as threats to cyber-security. These omissions highlight the importance of taking the time to get this issue right, also to discuss with the public what the impact of an autonomous sanction regime would have.

Another Labour party member expressed general skepticism about these sorts of sanctions:

This bill disregards the human rights issue, even though the member has intended for this bill to address the human rights issue by imposing sanctions to international entities and we have seen this policy constantly causing issues and in fact, causing crisis. The United States and some other superpowers acted like an international police and it didn't work. That is not what New Zealand stands for. It's not like us and we don't need it.

In contrast, an ACT party (right-wing, classical liberal) member was supportive, making reference to Xinjiang in her remarks:

Now, the ACT Party is very proud that we brought a motion to Parliament earlier this year to condemn the severe human rights abuses that have occurred in the Xinjiang region of China against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities. But we also note that there was a gutless move from the Government to water down our motion, and I note, the Minister's comments here today also sound gutless, talking about the fact that this bill doesn't go far enough talking about human rights. Well, that's absolutely obscene. If she has a problem with the bill, that is why you send it to select committee; if it doesn't go far enough, send it to the select committee. Don't go opposing this bill just because you might be scared.

We need to have a framework that sits outside what is the way that we sanction through the UN, and that is what this bill seeks to do. …