Let’s be defined by our collective response to the terrorist attack

Let’s be defined by our collective response to the terrorist attack

November 25, 2020

By Paul Hunt, Chief Human Rights Commissioner

This first appeared in The Press on 25 November 2020.

Tomorrow, the Governor-General will receive one of the most important reports of our time.

Dame Patsy Reddy will pass it to the government. Government will decide when to make it publicly available. It’s inconceivable the government will sit on it for long.

The report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques - and our collective response to it - will shape the country’s future for at least a generation.

The report will be read – and the national response to it will be closely watched – around the world.

We can emerge from the catastrophe of 15 March 2019 a much better country, but it’s going to take honesty, integrity, imagination and courage.

Let’s not be defined by the terrorist attack, but by our courageous and collective response to it.

Herculean task

When the Royal Commission was established last year, Commissioners Sir William Young and Jacqui Caine were confronted with a Herculean task. They faced many complex, highly sensitive issues.

The Commission conducted some 400 meetings, including with two Prime Ministers, affected whānau, survivors and witnesses of the terrorist attack, and chief executives of public sector agencies.

Until we know what the report says, it’s premature to say whether the Royal Commission has done a good job, but its professionalism, commitment and industry are palpable.

Countering violent extremism

No doubt the Royal Commission will address how to counter violent extremism, such as white supremacy. This demands a range of initiatives, including deradicalisation, rehabilitation and law reform.

But tackling symptoms won’t be enough, the country must also address the root causes of violent extremism. Some of the root causes extend beyond New Zealand. For example, we will have to reconsider how to hold accountable social media global corporations, an issue that is explicitly excluded from the Royal Commission’s terms of reference.

The 15 March was an attack on Muslims because of their faith. But the attack was also fuelled by the racism of white supremacy. In recent years, this pernicious ideology has targeted Māori, Jewish, Asian, Indian, African and Pacific people in New Zealand.

It may be uncomfortable, but we have to recognise the roots of racism and white supremacy in New Zealand can be traced back to the colonisation of Aotearoa which disregarded Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

This does not mean New Zealanders today should anguish about intergenerational guilt: that would be unwarranted and unhelpful. But it does mean we should not wilfully forget New Zealand’s racist colonial history which, for many years, failed to honour Te Tiriti.

Today, vital features of Te Tiriti are still not honoured.

If we are serious about understanding 15 March, and tackling the root causes of violent extremism, we must acknowledge and address the systemic racism experienced by tangata whenua over many generations.


One of the roles of the Royal Commission is to hold to account those in power.

Muslim communities - and everyone in New Zealand - need to know what went wrong, who was responsible, what remedial action is possible, how we can do everything possible to ensure 15 March never recurs, and how we can build an inclusive multiculturalism grounded on Te Tiriti.

If the Royal Commission finds errors were made whoever is responsible should go to our Muslim brothers and sisters, acknowledge shortcomings, sincerely apologise, and take effective action.

We also need a nimble but compelling way of checking that the Royal Commission’s recommendations are implemented and, if not, why not.

Whatever accountability arrangements are established (more than one will be needed), they must include adequately funded Muslim - and other - community organisations.

Part of the solution not the problem

The public service should engage consistently and respectfully with Muslim and other communities. 

Too often, this has not happened in the past.

Communities are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

The values embodied in human rights and Te Tiriti - the importance of relationships, responsibilities, partnership, respect (manaakitanga), fairness, dignity, decency, freedom, equality, belonging, community, safety, wellbeing, participation - have a crucial and constructive role to play.

The new Public Service Act is an invaluable step in the right direction. It heralds new “public service principles”, “a spirit of service to community” and a duty “to promote diversity and inclusiveness”.

Together, let’s turn these inspirational words into transformational actions.