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Blowing Up The Bamiyan Buddhas – de Bres Speech

Blowing Up The Bamiyan Buddhas: It Makes You Think


Address at the Dawn Ceremony on the United Nations Day of Cultural Heritage
4 December 2002, Civic Square, Wellington.

by Joris de Bres, Race Relations Commissioner

We are here in Wellington at the dawn of the International Day of Cultural Heritage. We are the first in the world to celebrate it, but will be followed by people throughout the world in the next 24 hours. Today is the culmination of the United Nations Year of Cultural Heritage.

It is timely to recall why UNESCO and the United Nations decided to focus this year on cultural heritage. It was in response to the cultural vandalism that led to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This was an appalling example of people of one culture wielding their power to destroy a site that was special to people of another. The world was outraged.

But while we rightfully shake our heads in incomprehension and condemnation, the destruction of the Buddhas also challenges us to think of our own country and to examine our own record.

The colonisation of New Zealand was a sorry litany of cultural vandalism.

Governments, egged on by land-hungry settlers, rode roughshod over Maori cultural relationships with their environment, threw some of their most visionary and peaceful cultural leaders and elders into gaol without trial, belittled their culture and actively discouraged the use of their language. This cultural vandalism was accompanied by environmental vandalism, and vast expanses of New Zealand’s indigenous ecosystems were unnecessarily destroyed.

It wasn’t meant to be like that. In the Treaty of Waitangi the British Crown solemnly guaranteed to Maori protection of their whenua, their kainga and their taonga. In contemporary English, that could be taken to mean their environment, their social and economic conditions, and their cultural heritage.

The Treaty was arguably the first legal agreement on natural and cultural heritage in New Zealand. It was a precursor of the Resource Management Act.

The Treaty itself became a taonga to Maori, highly prized for its solemn promise and its clarity of language. Regrettably the language of the Maori majority at that time was ignored in favour of the language of the colonising power. Taonga in the Maori version of the Treaty was referred to in the English version as “properties”, an early sign of cultural difference. Despite consistent Maori representations to governments and the British Crown, the Treaty was ignored, rejected and, as a final indignity, dismissed in court as a nullity. We should acknowledge the few who nurtured the Treaty through these troubled times to its enactment in legislation in 1975.

It was not until the landmark case brought by the New Zealand Maori Council in 1987 that the Treaty finally began to assume its proper place in modern jurisprudence. We are all still struggling to come to terms with this new and unfamiliar state of affairs. In the past fifteen years we have seen an affirmation of the Treaty in an increasing number of statutes, and calls either for greater statutory definition of the “principles of the Treaty” or for an end to any further statutory recognition.

The debate has been rekindled with the parliamentary consideration of the Local Government Bill and the Resource Management Amendment Bill.

When you combine the Treaty and the RMA, you have a powerful cocktail that can almost instantly reduce some public commentators to severe monocultural apoplexy. While the unease of landowners in this new legal environment is understandable, the extreme response from some such commentators is regrettable.

Someone said to me recently that New Zealanders are very opinionated about the Treaty, but very ill-informed. One of the current catch cries is that we should settle historical grievances as quickly as possible and then re-consign the Treaty to the history books.

Although the Treaty itself is a significant part of our cultural heritage, which we celebrate today, the issues would still be there even if there wasn’t a Treaty, or even if the Treaty did not have contemporary as well as historical relevance. What the world is saying through UNESCO and through the United Nations is that cultural heritage, like natural heritage, is in need of protection and nourishment. As our Prime Minister observed recently in Johannesburg, echoing the words of French President Jacques Chirac, we need to turn our attention as a global community to adding a fourth pillar, the cultural, alongside the environmental, the economic and the social pillars of sustainability. We need a quadruple bottom line.

How far have we come as New Zealanders in balancing the cultural with the environmental, the economic and the social? The majority of the population now accept the importance of environmental sustainability, although that has been a slow and painful awakening. But when it comes to the Treaty, or respect for Maori culture, people complain of Treaty fatigue or accuse Maori of holding the country or private landowners to ransom.

There have been three recent examples – the taniwha and Transit New Zealand, the proposed replenishment of a beach on Auckland’s North Shore with sand from the Coromandel, and the registration of a wahi tapu area over Kopukairoa Maunga at Welcome Bay. All of these have been greeted with political and media outrage.

Let me make my own personal position clear. Taniwha are not a part of my belief system. I have no spiritual objection to sand being taken from one beach to another. And there is nothing sacred to me personally about Kopukairoa Maunga. What I do believe in is respect for cultures other than my own. And if these issues have spiritual and cultural significance for Maori, why should I decry or deride that? I suspect that sometimes when we profess to be tolerant we are only tolerant of people who by and large think and believe as we do. Real tolerance is much harder than that. It requires us to respect and engage with people who have different beliefs, who challenge us, and who have the right to live their own culture.

If there is a conflict between cultures or beliefs, then we should not throw up our hands in horror or in mockery, but look for solutions and compromises.

That is what Transit New Zealand is doing, very much to their credit, over the taniwha. If the commentators had had the patience or the professionalism to investigate the comments of one Maori woman consulted by the North Shore City Council before bursting into print with condemnation, they would have discovered (as the NZ Herald did subsequently) that she had raised a question, not a veto, and wanted other Maori to be consulted. And if Paul Holmes had looked at the facts he had been given of the Maori Heritage Council’s registration of the wahi tapu area on Kopukairoa Maunga, he wouldn’t have started with the statement, “Wait till you hear this. Be prepared to go ballistic.” I wonder how Maori viewers felt when they heard that? Or how Maori children react when what they learn from their parents is derided publicly in this way?

All of these situations, deriving from the implementation of the Treaty and its principles as now enshrined in legislation, merely require people to talk to each other, show respect, and demonstrate some faith that people are prepared to be reasonable. We should learn to listen before we leap, or to use a Maori phrase, taringa whakarongo, listen carefully.

New Zealanders have become much more passionate in recent decades about protecting and restoring what remains of our natural heritage. Despite initial protests from property owners, district plans now have a relatively comprehensive list of the many thousands of areas that merit protection. Our national parks and protected areas have gradually attained the status of pakeha icons, and woe betide those who seek to compromise them. We now have widely accepted provisions to protect historic European buildings, and local authority consents are needed before they can be altered or destroyed.

There are over 6,000 historic places and historic areas on the Historic Places Trust register, and a backlog of hundreds of new applications. By comparison, there are only 63 wahi tapu and wahi tapu areas on the register of the Maori Heritage Council, and no backlog.

A healthy and respected Maori culture is important to all New Zealanders. If we continue to destroy it, we destroy the ability of people to live successful lives and to transmit recipes for successful living to their children. We then end up with alienation and failure. We cannot afford this in our social environment, any more than we can afford to neglect our physical environment.

As we commemorate this Day of Cultural Heritage, I urge those people who have fought to preserve our national parks and reserves, who have sought to have areas of natural significance listed in district plans, and who have successfully applied to have European historic places registered by the Historic Places Trust, to now recognise that the protection of Maori cultural heritage and the implementation of the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi are the new frontier. It should be a familiar path to them. When they succeeded, did the sky fall in for property owners as some predicted it would? No. Did property values collapse? On the contrary, an increasing number of purchasers see value in properties recognised for having special areas of native bush or historical importance. One day it will be the same for sites of cultural significance to Maori.

Let us remember to listen before we leap, to seek to understand rather than condemn without a hearing, to seek to negotiate if there is a conflict, and to respect other people’s cultures as much as we expect them to respect ours.

Let us practise cultural protection and nourishment, not cultural vandalism.

Let us celebrate bi-culturalism and multiculturalism in New Zealand, not ask people to leave their culture on the marae or at the border. Let that be the lesson for us of the Taliban’s wanton destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas which prompted the establishment of this international day of cultural heritage, te ra whakanui I nga taonga tuku iho.


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