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Intimidation, Threats Against Human Rights Defenders & Lack Of Government Response Creates “Human Rights Crisis” In NZ

The harassment, intimidation and threatening of Human Rights Defenders in Aotearoa New Zealand and the lack of government response has been described today as a “human rights crisis” by community group The Manaaki Collective.

“Not only are human rights campaigners being threatened, but the threats are extending to their work colleagues, to their families, and even to their children” said one of the co-founders of the Collective. “Alt-right extremists are also engaging in smear campaigns about important human rights work programs, and the sum total is that it is making participation in human rights work literally life threatening. That impacts upon the ability of human rights defenders to do their work, but it also makes it unsafe for communities and organisations to participate in that work as well. Human rights work requires safety for marginalised communities to gather and speak. It requires protection for human rights defenders to advocate, and it requires security for human rights workers to report on their work.

Multiple human rights defenders across a range of communities being unable to do their work, coupled with political leaders calling for the disestablishment of the Human Rights Commission, and denouncing human rights documents like the Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, has led to what The Manaaki Collective is describing as a human rights crisis in New Zealand.

“Right now, there are so many people who work in the human rights space that don’t have the liberty to pursue their professional goals, to talk openly about their work, or who fear reprisal for speaking out about the results of their work. When important work that brings benefits to so many: work in human rights, Indigenous rights, Rainbow rights, minority rights and environmental rights or in social, racial or treaty justice - is being stopped by a small minority of hateful individuals who aim to terrorize human rights defenders into silence - this is a human rights crisis.”

On February 11 2021, an article in The Guardian found “at least 331 human rights defenders promoting social, environmental, racial and gender justice in 25 countries were murdered in 2020, with scores more beaten, detained and criminalised”.

Meg de Ronde, Executive Director of Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand described the circumstances of a New Zealand-based human rights defender having to prepare their young children on what to do if someone arrives at their house with the intention of carrying out violence as simply “horrific”. In a powerful and moving interview on TVNZ Breakfast on Wednesday 14 July she said: “We work around the world with people who face this fear but to hear somebody in New Zealand say “We have had death threats. We know that people live close to our homes. We know they have guns and access to weapons.” We know that these were similar concerns that people had, prior to March [15]”.

Ms de Ronde continued: “people like to use [...] the right to freedom of expression as a claim to silence others. Freedom of expression is not an absolute right. You are entitled to put limits on it, if that harms others. So if you see people terrified for their life, if you see people who are inciting others to hurt them, then that is a legitimate limit to freedom of expression”.

Ms de Ronde pointed out the irony by stating “The irony of the freedom of expression debate is that it doesn’t include the freedom of people whose own expression is being silenced due to violence and harassment”.

In the same interview, New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon raised concerns about the long-term impacts of people and families living in terror. “The state has great responsibility because we have still Pacific families that have suffered from the Dawn Raids. We have the Tuhoe families that actually suffered from the Tuhoe raids. Those are [...] hurtful incidents that go on for generations'' he said.

When asked if New Zealand is doing a good enough job in acknowledging the extent this happens and responding to it, Commissioner Foon said in relation to the police and NZSIS “there’s a concern there in terms of what they are actually focusing on”. Commissioner Foon also pointed out the lack of focus on white supremacist groups in the review of the Counter Terrorism Legislation Bill.

Established as a community of support for marginalized voices in pursuit of human rights and treaty justice in Aotearoa New Zealand, The Manaaki Collective launched today to an enthusiastic response. “We have been overwhelmed with support from every day New Zealanders who want to support our objective'' one co-Founder reported. “We hoped this would be the case - that once people understood what Human Rights Defenders in Aotearoa were being subjected to, the horrific conditions they are trying to live and work under - then everyday Kiwis would band together to help”.

In less than 24 hours The Manaaki Collective has raised more than $1,000 to help protect the individuals being targeted, and hundreds have shown support. “We have a human rights crisis here in Aotearoa, and we need this to be fixed, urgently” the same co-Founder said. “Our government needs to step up and meet their obligations to protect Human Rights Defenders so that they can do their job in peace and safety, as the rest of us can” they went on.

“But we don’t have any crisis of support for each other” they finished. “The solidarity being demonstrated today is a reflection of the kind of country most of us want Aotearoa to be: caring, peaceful, united and free to do our work and live our lives without fear.”

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