Susan Devoy will leave the Human Rights Commission next month. Photo: The Hui

Susan Devoy: How the Human Rights Commission can rebuild trust

This week it was announced that Dame Susan Devoy will not be seeking another term as Race Relations Commissioner. Here she pays tribute to her colleagues at the Human Rights Commission, and calls on those who failed staff in relation to sexual harassment allegations to do the right thing and step aside.

People who are brave enough will stand up, speak out and do the right thing.

Usually I’m referring to people who speak out about racial abuse and discrimination in their everyday lives.

But today I’m referring to the awesome staff I’ve been honoured to work with at the Human Rights Commission.

I am incredibly proud of them for so many reasons.

The first is the stunning work they do. These are human rights champions who are the people behind our unforgettable, hard-hitting anti-racism campaigns. The advocates who put their own lives out there in the public eye to campaign for their right to live with dignity no matter who we are or what our ability is.

They are the ones who relentlessly called for justice on behalf of thousands of children and vulnerable people tortured and abused in government homes. People who have seen a government announce a Royal Commission of Inquiry and the Rugby Union look at its own culture and start to change it. Staff who have taken on politicians from almost every political party, including the prime minister. People who have literally stood alongside our most marginalised New Zealanders and let them know: you’re not alone and what’s more, we will fight for you.

They are also the people whose courage led to this month’s Ministerial Report into the Human Rights Commission, their place of work. Justice Minister Andrew Little’s leadership on this issue has been outstanding.

I can only speak on my own behalf to say that I am devastated and deeply sorry that we failed to protect, support and nurture the commission’s most important asset: our people.

The things our people endured should never have happened in any organisation, let alone ours.

Many no longer work at the commission but I would like to pay tribute to staff, past and present who I am proud to call my friends. They are walking the talk when it comes to human rights, and speaking truth to power.

It’s been a privilege and a great honour to serve as New Zealand’s race relations commissioner for the past five years. Thanks to the team behind me, we’ve done incredible things.

However it’s time to step back and reflect on what’s happened and how we can make sure it never, ever happens again. I hope that other boards and management groups read the ministerial review into the commission as there are things to learn from what our staff went through.

I’ve had a lot of lovely messages from former staff this past week, thanking me for trying to stick up for them. I will be moving on as my term is up and one term was always my aim. I urge others who failed our staff to take responsibility, do the right thing and step aside so that rebuilding trust and confidence in the Human Rights Commission can begin.

So it’s a strange day. I feel sad but proud. Devastated but vindicated. But also hopeful that things can only get better.

Our Human Rights Commission remains staffed by many people who are human rights experts, visionaries and leaders. They remain our organisation’s greatest treasure. Human rights begin at home.

Kia ora and thank you.

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