Paul Hunt: We must give nothing to racism and Islamophobia

Paul Hunt: We must give nothing to racism and Islamophobia

March 19, 2019

The calamity in Christchurch demonstrates that New Zealand's geographical isolation does not protect us from violent, transnational, neo-fascist ideology.

For a long time, Professor Paul Spoonley from Massey University has warned about the white supremacist nationalist politics festering in New Zealand. Susan Devoy, our former Race Relations Commissioner, has graphically described how the Muslim community in New Zealand has experienced hatred and abuse in recent years.

In the shadow of the Christchurch attacks, Anjum Rahman ,of the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand, explains that for years Muslim representatives knocked on every door they could, spoke at every possible forum and pointed to the rise of the alt-right in New Zealand. Quaking with rage, she writes: "We warned you. We begged. We pleaded."

While I have been in Christchurch, in solidarity with the Muslim community, listening to survivors and community leaders, I have seen a large swastika painted in the middle of a busy road. It was daubed within hours of the attacks on the nearby mosques.

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, which is based on the Māori-Crown partnership established by the Treaty of Waitangi.

Crucially, these values are embedded in our legally binding national and international human rights standards.

We must urgently refresh - and reaffirm - these human rights for modern times.

We have to ensure that human rights are confined neither to the halls of the United Nations nor the courts of our judicial system. Human rights are not the preserve of lawyers.

At root, human rights are about ensuring a secure, safe, dignified life for all. They are concerned with the everyday lives of all individuals and communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. They are the birthright of us all.

Human rights require us to listen to and support disadvantaged or vulnerable communities, whether Muslims in Christchurch or those struggling to have a decent life anywhere in these islands.

No public figure or commentator should ever use language that disrespects any of our diverse communities, including religious groups, ethnic communities, tangata whenua, Pacific peoples, immigrants and refugees, disabled people, women and girls, and members of the Rainbow community.

This is not "political correctness gone mad". It is a matter of life, death and human rights. Disrespectful words and actions give permission for discrimination, harassment and violence.

We need a mature discussion about internet and social media companies who disseminate hate through their platforms; media who spread messages of division and minimise racist acts; leaders who exploit these messages for their own political gain; and the 'she'll be right' attitude that masks and maintains racism in our society.

We must clarify the human rights responsibilities of social media and other companies. A sensible dialogue about our current hate speech laws is long overdue. We also need a thorough study on, and a national plan of action against, xenophobic extremism in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Human Rights Commission has called for improved data collection on hate-motivated crimes. At present New Zealand does not have statistics about crimes that occur because of a person's religion, colour, race or ethnicity, or other important personal characteristics such as sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Without such data, we do not know the scale and scope of the problem and so cannot design, implement and evaluate an effective response.

The United Nations also made recommendations about our laws relating to hate speech and racial hatred and the importance of collecting comprehensive data on these matters.

We must all commit to giving nothing to racism and Islamophobia, in line with the commission's campaign.

But we must go further. 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.

To our Muslim brothers and sisters: never forget that we stand by you. We will do whatever we can to support you, now and in the future.

Paul Hunt is the Chief Human Rights Commissioner at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and formerly an independent human rights expert with the United Nations.

This was originally published in The Press.