Jewish boys look at anti-semitic graffiti which was sprayed on the walls of a synagogue March 5, 2006 in Petah Tikva in central Israel. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Invisible violence: Why we need a hate crime law in New Zealand

How many hate crimes occur in New Zealand each year? Good question. Joe Higham explains why, to stop crimes motivated by prejudice, we first need to start recording them.

On the 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. The consequences of the Brexit decision, both positive and negative, are yet to fully play out. But one effect is already clear.

UK hate crimes, defined as crimes “motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudices, typically one involving violence”, rose 44% in July 2016, the month following the Brexit vote, in comparison with the same month the year before.

But how many hate crimes have been committed in New Zealand over the last twelve months? How many victims have there been? The answer is… we don’t know, because we don’t collect those statistics.

While we may not have the exact figure, what we do know is that for many New Zealanders being the victim of a hate crime is not as rare an experience as we might think, or hope. In the past year there were 325 complaints to the Human Rights Commission on the basis of “unlawful discrimination on the basis of consolidated Race (Colour, Race, Ethnic or National origins)”. This number is probably just the tip of the iceberg; many more likely never bothered to come forward, knowing that their prospects of obtaining justice were slim.

Jewish boys look at anti-semitic graffiti which was sprayed on the walls of a synagogue March 5, 2006 in Petah Tikva in central Israel. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Addressing the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in August this year, Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said that “Unless these events are captured and analysed, the day to day victimisation experienced by people because of their ethnicity is largely invisible… The thing about living in a country that ranks highly on the Global Peace Index is that often many of us end up believing our own hype.”

And that’s exactly it; those of us not affected by the day to day prejudicing and discrimination often overlook its effect. We buy into our own bullshit about how lovely (and safe) it is to live in New Zealand.

What we don’t know we can’t effectively address, and what we can’t address tends to only become an increasingly invisible problem, a normalised way of life affecting some of society’s most vulnerable. Put simply, by not collecting data we’re sweeping the issue under the carpet, to be addressed by someone else at a later date.

Ricardo Menendez March stood for the Green Party in the most recent election and was the first Latino candidate to ever run for parliament in New Zealand. He sees the lack of data collection as just “one of the ways which allows the political system to turn a blind eye to the reality that racism and misogyny are a source of violence.”

Another way we are falling short is legislatively. “Inciting racial disharmony” is one of the main legislative measures available as a charge when someone perpetrates a racial hate crime, but from 2012 to 2017 no prosecutions were made, though clearly not because crime of this kind is non-existent. Another option is for judges to include race-related hostility as an aggravating factor when sentencing criminals in court, but that doesn’t equal to the task of addressing crimes that insult our society in the way a hate crime does.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination agree. In response to Devoy’s submission, they outlined their concern that “existing legislation may be inadequate to effectively combat acts of racial hatred.”

We clearly need to work on our approach. Collecting data on hate crime and making it publicly available is the first step. When 325 New Zealanders are being targeted, often violently, by virtue of their skin colour, religion or sexuality then the onus is on those with a voice to come to their aid rather than sit back and allow them to suffer. Hate crimes are a far more pressing issue than we admit, especially for the societal groups who are most frequently their victims. Perhaps the solution is a legislative one. Or maybe, like the UK after its spike in hate crimes post-Brexit, there should be a governmental plan to address the issue.

Just because hate crime is not as big a problem here as in the UK doesn’t mean we should simply ignore it. Now it’s up to Jacinda Ardern and her new government to show they care.


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