Tackling racism, islamophobia and hate in New Zealand

Tackling racism, islamophobia and hate in New Zealand

April 2, 2019

By Paul Hunt, Chief Human Rights Commissioner

Following the attack on two mosques, leaving many dead and injured, on 15th March 2019 in Christchurch, the Chief Commissioner spoke at Otago University as part of the University’s Give Nothing to Racism campaign. These are extended extracts, with slight revisions, from the Chief Commissioner’s remarks:

The calamity in Christchurch

Three of us from the Human Rights Commission were in Christchurch within hours of the massacre.

Our aims were modest – to demonstrate solidarity; to listen; and to provide practical support when requested, which it was, and we responded.

Some stories were unspeakably harrowing.

Over three days, we spent time in the ‘hub’ which was organised to support the affected Muslim communities.

This ‘hub’ was busy. It provided a range of services, such as health, legal, police and other support services. And it also provided food and places for prayer.

The media were not allowed into the ‘hub’ and I do not feel it’s right for me to provide a journalistic account of our experiences. But I would like to make a few short observations.

There was a sense of unity across the affected Muslim communities, tangata whenua and mana whenua, and the people of Christchurch.

The Muslim communities did not have a bad word for New Zealand. Just the reverse. Despite everything, they love the place.

Despite their trauma and exhaustion, they also demonstrate enormous dignity.

While the elders were pillars of strength, the young people were remarkable, dynamic, very smart, and inspirational.

We were often told that long term support and solidarity is essential. Not gadfly interest – here today and gone tomorrow – but a commitment to the long haul.

This is the backcloth against which I would like to make a few remarks for Race Relations Day 2019.

These remarks only scratch the surface of a few of the relevant issues.

I hope to dig more deeply on other occasions.

Human rights in New Zealand

New Zealand has one of the best human rights records in the world – but look across the globe, the competition is not great.

We are a richly diverse multicultural society based on the Māori-Crown partnership established by the Treaty of Waitangi.

Aotearoa welcomes people from all religions, ethnicities and backgrounds.

For many of us, it is a very fine place to live.

New Zealand is a well-established democracy and it should have the maturity to recognise it has major human rights problems.

A few weeks ago, Minister of Justice Andrew Little flew to Geneva and presented New Zealand’s human rights report card to the apex human rights institution in the United Nations.

Here is one short quotation from the Minister’s thoughtful human rights survey:

“The impacts of colonisation continue to be felt today, through entrenched structural racism and poorer outcomes for Maori.”

A powerful statement.

If the Minister of Justice can be this candid about New Zealand’s human rights situation, so must everyone else.

I took up the post of Chief Human Rights Commissioner a few weeks ago and, as some of my colleagues will testify, I felt there was a sense of complacency in New Zealand about the country’s human rights situation.

I hope that complacency has now evaporated.

It’s not treasonable to ask: what are New Zealand’s major human rights problems?

One is poverty.

There are unacceptable levels of poverty in New Zealand – and poverty is a human rights issue. Poverty is also highly relevant to Race Relations Day because people of colour are disproportionately represented in the poverty data.

This afternoon, I begin, here in Otago, a number of nationwide visits, planned since January, which will take place over the next weeks and months, to enable me to listen to, and learn from, people and communities affected by the impacts of poverty and inequality. My hosts this afternoon are the members of the Corstorphine Community Hub – and I am very grateful to them.

In keeping with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I adopt a holistic approach to human rights: equality and non-discrimination; civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights; the right to a safe environment; and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Apart from poverty, a major human rights problem in New Zealand is racism.

Another: Islamophobia.

Of course there are numerous other human rights problems in New Zealand.

Nonetheless, given the catastrophe in Christchurch last week, my remarks will focus on racism, Islamophobia and related issues.

I will leave poverty and other issues for another occasion.

Racism and Islamophobia are not the same thing, but they are closely related.

Sometimes I will elide between them, while recognising they are distinct phenomenon.

How to begin to respond to the events in Christchurch?

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. Shaking with rage she writes: “We warned you. We begged. We pleaded.”

While I was in Christchurch, in solidarity with the Muslim community, I saw a large swastika painted in the middle of a busy road. It was daubed within hours of the attacks on the nearby mosques.

How can we resist this virulent right-wing extremism?

First, we have to recognise it exists in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Friends, don’t argue the coward killer was from outside and that Australia has a problem and we don’t.

There is a problem of racism, Islamophobia and right-wing extremism in New Zealand. Together we can tackle it. But only if we recognise it exists in our country.

We have to shout from the roof-tops that we will never compromise our commitment to diversity, respect, dignity and equality.

These values lie at the heart of our multi-culturalism which, as already mentioned, 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.

Human rights require that space is available for the active and informed participation of 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, Pasific 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, a point I return to shortly.

Responsibilities of internet and social media companies

We need a mature discussion about internet and social media companies which disseminate hate through their platforms. A couple of days ago the Prime Minister put it like this:

“We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher. Not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”

Companies not only have “responsibility”, as the Prime Minister puts it, they also have human rights responsibilities.Of course, the primary human rights duty-bearer is the state and its agents.But for some years, member states working in the United Nations, including New Zealand, have recognised that transnational corporations, and other business enterprises, have human rights responsibilities.After all, some transnational corporations wield far more public power than some states, so why should such companies escape human rights responsibilities and the corresponding accountability?These arguments are strongly resisted in some quarters, but I am only applying, to internet and social media companies, some of the mainstream human rights thinking in the United Nations.

Hate speech is not free speech

A sensible discussion about our current hate speech laws is long overdue.

The main laws covering “hate speech” in New Zealand are found in the Human Rights Act and the Harmful Digital Communications Act. These laws have to be interpreted in the context of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, which affirms the right to freedom of expression.  

This legal framework has grave anomalies.

For example, the HRA prohibits the “incitement of disharmony” on the basis of race, ethnicity, colour or national origins (s.61). But it does not cover incitement for reasons of religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation.  

Why on earth not?

Why does the law prohibit the incitement of hostility against someone because of their race or color - but not because of their religion - or their sexual orientation - or because they have a disability?

It’s not rocket science: every member of our community should feel safe.

Nobody should be permitted to incite hostility because somebody else has a different religion – or because they have a partner of the same sex – or because they use a wheelchair.

Of course we need vigorous debate about controversial issues – and of course sometimes we will offend people or be offended. That is all part of the robust exchange of ideas in a democratic society.  But this does not mean we can use freedom of expression as a weapon to infringe the fundamental rights of others.

Hate speech is not free speech.

Very few human rights are absolute. The prohibition against torture is among the small handful of exceptions. Balance is a foundational human rights concept. Often a fair and reasonable balance has to be struck between competing rights. In New Zealand, we are already very familiar with striking human rights balances between, for example, freedom of information and the right to privacy.

In short, freedom of speech must not be used as a weapon against others.

It has to be balanced with the right to enjoy a safe, secure, dignified life.

New Zealand should set the legal terms of this balance by way of an open, inclusive, constructive, respectful, democratic process. And then the courts have to actually apply -- or strike -- this balance in appropriate cases as best they can.

Improved data on hate crimes

For some years, the Human Rights Commission has called for improved data collection on hate-motivated crimes. At present we do 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.

Study on - and national plan of action against - extremism

We also need a thorough study on, and a national plan of action against, extremism in Aotearoa New Zealand.

From casual racism to 15th March, Christchurch

A few weeks ago, I made some remarks to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.

With the Holocaust in mind, I argued that casual racism can lead to stereotyping; and stereotyping can lead to ‘othering’ – that is, seeing other humans as somehow alien; and ‘othering’ can lead to demonising; and demonising can lead to genocide.

Today, I wish to revise that.

Casual racism can lead to stereotyping; then ‘othering’; then demonising; and then 15th March, Christchurch.

Casual racism offends, disempowers, constrains.

Remember Gulliver. He was washed up on the shores of Lilliput, a country inhabited by little people. He awakes to find himself bound by thousands of ropes. Each rope is short and slight and seems inconsequential. But their cumulative effect is to tie Gulliver down. Their cumulative effect is to hold him back.

And that’s like the insidious impact of multiple, daily incidents of casual racism.

Also, we know from history that if we don’t take casual racism seriously – if we don’t take casual Islamophobia seriously - this can, in due course, lead to terrible violent consequences on communities who are quietly going about their daily lives.

So it’s imperative we give nothing to racism, as set out in the Human Rights Commission’s award-winning campaign, fronted by Taika Waititi and numerous other brilliant Kiwis.

And it’s imperative we give nothing to Islamophobia.

But we must go further. We need to grasp the rich diversity of New Zealand 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.

Friends, join a community group and reach out in friendship to another community with a richly different fabric from your own.

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.