Terror in Chch

NZ is complacent on human rights

In the wake of the Christchurch attack there have been reports of a rise in Islamophobic sentiment and comment. Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt tells Laura Walters now is the time to focus on the country’s shortcomings.

Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt barely had his feet under the desk when New Zealand changed forever.

In the lead-up to the Christchurch attack, Hunt had been discussing with his colleagues the issue of New Zealand’s complacency on human rights.

He decided to bide his time before going public with these thoughts, then 50 Muslims were killed by a white extremist on March 15.

Hunt said no one, including himself, anticipated “this calamity”, but there was a degree of complacency in New Zealand which troubled him.

There was great pride in the country’s human rights record, and New Zealand was one of the best (“the competition, when you look across the world, is not great”), but there were still problems.

"There is Islamophobia, there is racism, and it’s not treasonable to say that."

“I think that we need to acknowledge them more broadly. There is Islamophobia, there is racism, and it’s not treasonable to say that."

Now was the time to seriously focus on the country’s human rights shortcomings, and have a mature debate about human rights, and the balance between free speech and hate speech, Hunt said.

Following the Christchurch mosque attacks there have been reports of increases in Islamophobic comments and actions across the world, including New Zealand.

New Zealand authorities have not yet been able to verify whether there had been a rise in the number of reports regarding hate speech, or religion-based abuse.

Hate crime is not a specific offence in New Zealand, so it is difficult for police to gather data. Alleged hate crimes are coded by police under existing offence categories, but notes can be added to the file if police believe a person is targeted because of a “common characteristic”, such as race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion. This is an aggravating factor in the crime.

The Human Rights Commission raised the issue on the lack of data in its briefing to incoming minister Andrew Little in 2017, saying the police response was “insufficient”.

"Unless these events are captured and analysed, the day-to-day victimisation experienced by people because of their ethnicity is largely invisible."

The briefing also identified rising religious tensions, and the commission urged Little to create a national strategy to prevent violent extremism.

"New Zealand is not isolated from the threat of violent extremism. There is an urgent need for social sector and community-based strategies and programmes to support citizens and communities to reduce the risk of radicalisation, as well as a national strategy focused on prevention of violent extremism,” it said.

“Casual racism can lead to all sorts of terrible stuff. Casual racism can lead to the stereotyping, and the stereotyping can lead to the othering … and as soon as you start treating others as alien it’s close to demonising, and demonising can slip into the 15th of March.”

In 2017, Police Commissioner Mike Bush said he was working with the commission to investigate whether more specific legislation was needed.

Meanwhile, in the UK, an organisation called Tell MAMA, which measures anti-Muslim attacks, said there had been a 593 percent increase in the number of incidents reported in the days following March 15.

And five mosques in Birmingham in the UK had their windows smashed on March 21.

“When it comes to the miniscule minority that have been publicly Islamophobic in recent days, we’ve got to give them nothing. We’ve got to resist their poisonous message,” Hunt said.

People making racist comments of any type should be calmly, and peacefully challenged.

“Casual racism can lead to all sorts of terrible stuff. Casual racism can lead to the stereotyping, and the stereotyping can lead to the othering… and as soon as you start treating others as alien it’s close to demonising, and demonising can slip into the 15th of March.”

Hunt was in Christchurch in the days immediately following the attack, where he and his team spent time with victims, to show solidarity, and help with practical communications assistance.

The feeling reminded him of what he experienced during his time as a UN Special Rapporteur.

Hunt spent time in Israel and Lebanon during the conflict of 2006. He visited Beirut, where he saw cluster bombs lying on the ground. And in Israel, saw hospitals partially destroyed by Lebanon’s rockets.

In Northern Uganda, he visited the warzone, where he met internally displaced people.

“I have thought about the differences between those experiences and last week in Christchurch.

“They’re not parallel, Christchurch is not a warzone, but there was an intensity of common experience, under huge duress… there was an intensity I felt in Christchurch which reminded me of some of these other places I have been,” Hunt said.

“The feeling that I experienced, reminded me of some of those feelings I’d experienced, wearing a different hat, at a different time.”

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, New Zealand needed to have a proper public discussion about human rights and free speech versus hate speech, he said.

New Zealand did not currently have the balance right, but had matured enough as a nation to be able to have the difficult discussion.

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