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Susan Devoy: Why I’m telling the UN about NZ’s immoral inaction on state care abuse

‘This is not my New Zealand.’ Ahead of her speech to the UN this week, the Race Relations Commissioner calls on politicians to stand on principle and do right by the victims of institutional abuse.

Earlier this year I was on the same train in America where a week before a man had murdered two strangers after they challenged his racist abuse of two young women. That train carriage was a galaxy away from New Zealand, where we are consistently rated one of the most peaceful nations on earth, as well as one of the most ethnically diverse.

And yet back home, while I’m incredibly privileged to have met so many awesome New Zealanders during my time as Race Relations Commissioner, the reality is that so many of them have faced racial abuse from strangers as they ride the train or take the bus to work. Overt racial attacks do not only happen overseas. Racial hatred starts small, but so too does hope. This is why we launched our country’s first nationwide anti-racism campaign, millions of people have shown their support for our message that Taika Waititi articulated so perfectly: Give Nothing to Racism. The fact that so many of our celebrities dropped everything to support us made me feel so proud to be a Kiwi.

That’s why when I speak at the UN Committee responsible for the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this week I will be talking about hope. Because my hope is that everyday people will agree that we need to treat each other with respect if we want our children to have the kind of future they deserve. One thing we want is for our police to record hate crimes. At the moment if someone attacks a mosque or a synagogue with racist graffiti it is recorded as property damage; we want to ensure it is also recorded as a racially motivated crime.

Last month I stood alongside survivors of state abuse who were put in government institutions – often for little or no reason at all – as children where they suffered horrific abuse over many years. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever done. They held onto photos of themselves and others as children: youngsters with cheeky toothless grins, beautiful babies. These New Zealanders went on to suffer years of abuse at the hands of their own government. We know that of the children who were taken, the overwhelming majority were Māori: upwards of 80% and sometimes 100% in various children’s homes. These state homes were the beginning of the mass incarceration of Māori New Zealanders in our state institutions. And it is still going on.

The fact that our government has refused a full investigation into the systemic abuse of children and disabled New Zealanders is not only wrong, it is immoral. This is not my New Zealand and I will be urging the UN to tell our government to do the right thing.

I’ve met thousands of people during my time in this role. So many former refugees, asylum seekers and migrants tell me these words: I love New Zealand. My role is to ensure that New Zealand loves them back. My role is to encourage other New Zealanders to treat them with respect as fellow Kiwis and vice versa.

Generations of Māori New Zealanders have suffered so much at the hands of the state. One man who’d spent his childhood in a state institution where he was horrifically abused told me “My government has never loved me or cared about me”. My role is to make sure that his government cares about him enough to say sorry and to investigate what happened to him and thousands of others so it can never happen again.

A nation’s identity is not just about a flag or an anthem. A nation’s identity is about who we are as a people, how we treat each other and, importantly, how our state treats us.


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