New Zealanders were as shocked as the rest of the world; our self image as a peaceful people living in a haven remote from the ugly realities of populist politics, white supremacy, and hate speech was shattered on Friday afternoon, 15 March. In the space of 30 minutes, one gunman killed 50 Muslims praying in two separate mosques, and seriously injured another 50.
New Zealand is a known advocate and defender of human rights, with a strong ethos of fairness, manifest in a public health system, public education system, lack of corruption, and transparent, accessible politicians. Naively, we thought we welcomed immigrants and refugees, just as we believe we acknowledge and atone for our violent colonial past and its savage treatment of Māori – the indigenous people. Behind this facade lies a different reality for New Zealanders not in the mainstream.
In the wake of the tragedy it has emerged that for years the Human Rights Commission had been working with the Muslim community in New Zealand to help draw attention to their experience of hatred and abuse. One of the Muslim leaders, Anjum Rahman of the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand, has spoken of her efforts to alert the previous and current governments of the threats and increasing vitriol: “We warned you. We begged. We pleaded.” Muslims and Māori are not shocked at the tragedy. Devastated, grief stricken, but not shocked. Their warnings as to where the increasing racism might lead were ignored, their rights to religious freedom, security, and peace violated.
The New Zealand Chief Human Rights Commissioner, and the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Paul Hunt, is in Christchurch with the Muslim community, and he acknowledges the Islamophobia in some quarters in New Zealand. In an opinion piece in the Christchurch Press he writes of the place for human rights in our recovery:
Amidst our shock and grief, many of us ask how can we resist this virulent right-wing extremism? We have to recognise it exists and shout from the roof-tops that we will never compromise our commitment to tolerance, diversity, respect, dignity and equality. These values lie at the heart of our multi-culturalism… are embedded in our legally binding national and international human rights standards.
We need to grasp the rich diversity of New Zealand’s society. We need to look for ways to engage with people from other cultures, religions and communities. At every chance we must promote and maintain harmonious relations and ensure the protection of human rights for everyone. Our country must become a global champion of anti-racism, anti-Islamophobia and human rights for all. In this way we’ll honour the victims of last week’s shocking calamity.
Our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has put these words into action with her compassionate and genuine response to this tragedy. We have watched her embrace the Muslim community, literally and figuratively. She has joined them in their grief, while making practical moves to ban the weapons that made this massacre possible, and promising to fulfil the families’ rights to dignity and financial support as they cope through the coming days, weeks and months. Her response to world leaders about how to help, was to show “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.” This fills us all with the hope that from this tragedy, we will become better, we will unite against racism, against hatred, and make Aotearoa/New Zealand that haven we envisioned, where all people live equal in dignity and rights.
Carmel Williams is the Executive Editor of the Health and Human Rights Journal, based in New Zealand