Almost as soon as it was announced, the Royal Commission tasked with probing the lead-up and response to the terrorist attacks in March attracted criticism, both over the process and its engagement with Muslim groups.
Former race relations commissioner Joris de Bres was invited to attend today. He won’t be there, however. In a letter to the Royal Commission, he sets out his reasons for declining to appear, chief among them concerns about placing ‘the families of the victims of the March 15 massacre, and their communities and organisations, at its centre’.
Below, the Royal Commission responds.
Tēnā kōrua e ngā rangatira
Thank you for the invitation to meet with you on Tuesday 23 July in my capacity as a former race relations commissioner (from 2002 to 2013). You have expressed interest in my experience in engaging with ethnic communities, including Muslim communities, and the types of issues that were often raised with me. You also wish to ask about my relationship with other government agencies, NGOs and community groups and have expressed interest in any views I may have on building social cohesion.
I would very much appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these issues but must regretfully decline to participate in the process until I am confident that it is transparent, places the families of the victims of the March 15 massacre, and their communities and organisations, at its centre and that they have the ability, with due regard to genuine issues of international security relationships and the right to a fair trial, to question and challenge the information provided by government agencies under investigation.
I would have liked Crown Law to have consulted with the Muslim community on the terms of reference for the Royal Commission. It appears from a letter from them to Christchurch youth leader Josiah Tuamali’i that they did not, but instead consulted with the government agencies that were to be the subject of the inquiry.
I would have liked you to experience the hurt and the heat of meeting the victims’ families, their communities and their organisations at the very start of your inquiry. Instead you, too, according to your own reports, appear to have met first with the government agencies that are the subject of your inquiry. Even now, three months after your establishment, Muslim community members and organisations tell me that they have not had any substantive discussions with you.
While your most recent update reports that you have met with the Islamic Women’s Council and the Federation of Islamic Associations (who have both expressed their dissatisfaction with those meetings), there is no record of you having met with the Muslim Association of Canterbury which governs the Al Noor Mosque. Instead, your update lists meetings with a succession of Pākehā males, constituting 80% of those named.
I would have liked you to have devoted more time early in your inquiry to meeting with the victims not just of Islamophobia, but also of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and all forms of racism, since these are the targets of white supremacists.
I would have liked you to allocate some of your $8.2 million budget to enable the resource-poor victims’ families, communities and voluntary organisations to acquire the capacity to engage effectively with you, for example to employ community coordinators, researchers and legal representatives. Instead, an extremely limited level of assistance has been offered after representations equivalent to a few days’ work in total while the government agencies under enquiry have major legal capacity to defend themselves.
I would have liked you to consult with the Muslim communities and organisations on the appointment of your head of community engagement. Instead, I hear dissatisfaction at the appointment and a lack of communication with the diverse sections of the Muslim community.
I would have liked you to appoint a legal adviser who has no history of representing the government in a case involving a prominent Muslim asylum seeker. Instead, you appointed an adviser who represented the Security Intelligence Service in the case of Ahmed Zaoui. Despite his impeccable credentials, it seems insensitive to the potential concerns of the Muslim community to do so. They are well aware of his appointment.
I would have liked you to publish the terms of reference for your Muslim Reference Group and to have conducted an open and transparent process in appointing its members. I note that it is meeting for the first time this coming week, three months after the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry, but its membership has not been made public or made known to the Muslim community at large.
I would have liked you to adopt as open and transparent a procedure as possible within the constraints of your terms of reference relating to security issues and the right to a fair trial. Instead, you have chosen to conduct all your business to date in private and prohibited the publication of evidence from specified state sector agencies. This week, after I received my invitation to meet with you, you amended this prohibition to include the entire state sector of 216 different agencies, bizarrely including the New Zealand Blood Service, the New Zealand Walking Access Commission, the Real Estate Authority, Fish and Game New Zealand, universities, district health boards, Crown research institutes and Predator Free 2050 Ltd. While the bizarre breadth of this extension is likely to bring the process into disrepute, I am most worried that it includes all state owned and state funded media organisations and the Human Rights Commission. This level of suppression of evidence and correspondence appears unprecedented.
I hope that in the next stage of your inquiry you will address these issues and assure yourselves that you have the confidence of the families of the victims of the Christchurch massacre, their communities and their organisations. After all it is they that have experienced the atrocity of March 15 at first hand and it is them that you need to reassure about their future safety.
I am happy to answer any questions you have of me in a public manner, as I do not possess any information which would jeopardise New Zealand’s security relationships or the right to a fair trial. The Human Rights Commission has recently republished It Happened Here, which comprises sections of my annual race relations reports from 2004-2012 dealing with hate crime. I prepared a report in 2014 for Multicultural New Zealand, Our Multicultural Future, which reports the views of a wide range of New Zealanders collected in 36 different workshops on their vision of and the barriers to multiculturalism. I offer these to you as a beginning for an exchange with you on the subjects you have asked me about.
Ngā mihi ki a kōrua
Joris de Bres
Race Relations Commissioner 2012-2013
A spokesperson for the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on Christchurch Mosques responds:
Given the gravity of the events of 15 March 2019, it is vital the Royal Commission is both meticulous and rigorous in seeking information and requiring government agencies answer direct and probing questions.
This must be done without restriction and under urgency, so that the Royal Commission can gather the evidence required to make sound findings and recommendations in a final report.
A robust approach means the Royal Commission cannot focus its view only on the central public service departments but must also make inquiries with the wider State sector to ensure nothing is missed.
The use of powers provided through the Inquiries Act 2013, is not taken lightly and we are mindful that the effective restrictions on transparency will be a frustration.
The Royal Commission has made interim, rather than permanent orders wherever possible, working on the assumption that after the report has been made public, evidence and information gathered will be made public unless it is subject to issues of privacy, confidentiality, natural justice or national security.
We are providing updates regularly and sharing information about who we are meeting with, to provide some insight into the Royal Commission’s work.
We appreciate this will not satisfy all interests, but we must manage the work of the Royal Commission with the utmost care to protect the integrity of the process.
The Royal Commission has been tasked with thoroughly investigating the issues, so that it can reassure the New Zealand public that all appropriate measures are being taken by relevant State sector agencies to ensure their safety and protection.
It was vital the Royal Commission start gathering evidence from government agencies at an early stage due to the processes involved and it made sense to form the Muslim Community Reference Group once a base level of understanding was achieved.
The Royal Commission has of course also been engaging directly with a range of Muslim communities since May.
When all members of the Muslim Community Reference Group have confirmed their participation, we will be able to publicly announce the full list of members.