Al Noor Mosque shooting survivor Wasseim Alsati after the sentencing at the Christchurch High Court (Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

We need justice, not charity, for Christchurch’s mosque attack survivors

When it comes to reparations for affected whānau, survivors and witnesses of March 15, the government is sticking to the ACC model. We need to ask whether this is the best way forward, writes chief human rights commissioner Paul Hunt.

Two years is a long time and for many of those who survived the March 15 massacre, it’s felt like a lifetime. Last month’s second anniversary took us back to the lowest point in our modern history when the Muslim community suffered massive violations of their human rights. A responsibility flows from that terrible afternoon.

International human rights law states that an effective remedy is required when a human right is violated. The United Nations affirmed the right to an effective remedy just weeks after the massacre, stating that victims of terrorism should have their “right to access justice and reparation fully respected”.

In New Zealand, this human right means affected whānau, survivors and witnesses are entitled to receive support for their recovery needs and other reparations from government.

It’s a matter of justice, not charity.

The Muslim community is doing all it can to discharge its responsibilities to those affected by the tragedy. For example, by providing spiritual, cultural and social support.

What are the government’s responsibilities? An apology, memorialisation, medical care, psycho-social support, law reform, policy change, teaching resources, legal assistance and compensation are all part of the right to an effective remedy.

Recently, we published a report at the Human Rights Commission acknowledging what the government has done to provide an effective remedy following March 15, 2019. We recognised that to one degree or another, the government has done many of the actions listed above and has also agreed in principle to implement all recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack.

Overall, New Zealand’s response to the terrorist attack has been commendable, but there’s still a long way to go.

Jacinda Ardern with members of the Muslim community in Christchurch. (Photo: Supplied)

While the Royal Commission report has 750 pages and makes 44 recommendations, only two pages and three recommendations address the recovery needs of affected whānau, survivors and witnesses. “We leave [reparations] for direct discussions,” says the report. This reflects its terms of reference which focus on other issues, such as whether public sector agencies should have known about the planned terrorist attack.

The essential point is that neither the Royal Commission report, nor its recommendations, were intended to settle the question of reparations. On the contrary, the Royal Commission explicitly left open the reparations question. It expected others to think through how best to address the recovery needs of affected whānau, survivors and witnesses.

On this issue, the government is sticking to the ACC model. We need to ask whether this is the best way forward. The dreadful catastrophe of March 15 is without precedent in our recent history. It was a terror attack, not a car crash, and ACC covers only those who suffered physical and related mental injuries in the attack. It excludes those who weren’t physically injured or family members who were and still are traumatised. 

The government has frankly acknowledged support for affected whanau “fell away last year”. Of the 51 killed, 47 were men, leaving behind a disproportionate number of wives, daughters, mothers and sisters. Are these women being heard?

So far, co-ordination between ACC and other agencies has left room for improvement. Last month, the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand reported that “to-date, no organisation or agency has conducted a baseline needs analysis survey of the victims.” Surely, this should be a priority. 

New Zealand’s system of remedy and reparations is distinctive but, nonetheless, we should publicly consider how other countries have approached reparation packages for the victims of terrorist attacks, such the US after 9/11, Spain after the train bombings in Madrid, the UK after the London tube bombings, and Norway after the attacks in Oslo and Utoya. There are lessons to learn. 

But it is already clear that the whānau of those murdered, as well as the survivors and witnesses, need further government assistance to help redress the severe harm they’ve suffered. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the current ACC model just isn’t cut out for what’s needed in this extraordinarily exceptional case. 

We should consider a bespoke, holistic, collaborative, one-point-of-entry scheme with affected whanau, survivors and witnesses at the centre. The scheme should be driven by a restorative process informed by human rights and Te Tiriti o Waitangi. It should aim to design and deliver individual reparation packages consistent with the human right to an effective remedy. Local and central government, as well as mana whenua, would have crucial roles to play. If this can be done within the three existing Royal Commendation recommendations – ‘navigators’, a Collective Impact Board, and restorative justice – all well and good.

We should be open to forging a new path, beyond the ACC model. By doing so we can deliver the human right to an effective remedy and reparations for whanau, survivors and witnesses that they are owed as a matter of justice.

We owe it to those left behind. 

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