“Let us never be silent about racism and intolerance”

Robyn Baker, Chair of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO reflects on the recent terrorist attack and our individual and collective responsibilities for action.

On Friday 15 March our beliefs about ourselves as a nation and as individuals were profoundly shaken. “How could this have happened here in New Zealand?” we asked ourselves, as news of the terrible terrorist attack on the Muslim community in Christchurch and multiple deaths and injuries came to light.

As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “…we represent diversity, kindness, compassion. A home for those who share our values. Refuge for those who needs it.” She went on to affirm that “those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.”

I saw this sentiment very much in evidence when I attended the vigil at the Basin Reserve in Wellington on Sunday. More than 11,000 people filled up the Basin to show their respect and support for the victims and their families. Vigils took place across the country, flowers were placed at mosques, and people of all faiths went out of their way to show that they cared through gestures both large and small.

This brought home to me that even the small things truly matter. The world is not so big that our actions as individuals don’t matter. Individual acts of kindness add up to a world we want and need. I was struck by the collective generosity of thousands of individuals united to show compassion and unity. It gave me hope that UNESCO’s vision of a more just and peaceful world is not merely an ideology. Together we can achieve it if we continue to think and act in ways that contribute to such a world.

The terrorist attack in Christchurch was orchestrated to have global impact. This wasn’t a national event – it was an international act which made headlines around the world. It was a demonstration of how hateful rhetoric is shared, fostered and spread in our connected world. We are all affected by such hateful acts. It is a powerful reminder that we must all hold one another to account. While we like to think that racism doesn’t exist in New Zealand, the sad fact is that racist behaviour is happening around us daily – and we need to be awake to it and call it out.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s ‘That’s Us’ and ‘Give Nothing to Racism’ campaigns remind us that racism starts small. As the latter campaign states: “Sometimes it lives in everyday actions and comments that we laugh off, nod in agreement to, excuse, and therefore accept. But we don’t have to. We can stop casual racism from growing into something more extreme.” Former Human Rights Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said, ‘while racism starts small, so does hope’. There is hope that by being conscious of our actions, we can enable change.

As the UN agency charged with fostering freedom of expression, UNESCO believes that “it is not enough to counter violent extremism – we need to prevent it. No one is born a violent extremist – they are made and fuelled”. The organisation has been actively working to raise public awareness and discussion about the ways online platforms are being used to fuel hatred of particular groups of people. Discussion in international UNESCO fora has concluded that “such speech unites and divides at the same time. It creates “us” and “them”. Again, as our Prime Minister has reminded us, ‘there is no place in our country or our world for hateful and divisive rhetoric or violent extremism’.

Educating people to be global citizens, taking action for the wellbeing of people and our planet, is an important part of creating a society we wish to live in – and is part of the National Commission’s mission. I was deeply saddened that the Christchurch attack took place on the very day our young people were boldly taking a stand as global citizens – in a global protest for action against climate change. It should have been them basking in the media spotlight. The passion and conviction of these young people is something to be inspired by. They are our future and our hope – and their voices matter. I am confident that it will be young people who will take a lead in building a better world.

Ironically, Thursday 21 March is the International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination, this year with the theme of ‘mitigating and countering rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologies’. This is a day to contemplate how far we have come, as well as how far we still need to go. If we are really to reframe our own minds and actions, and the minds of actions of others, we need to encourage collective action and a learning mind set, not one that is judgemental. We need to cultivate personal habits of kindness and curiosity. To be interested in others, to ask them about themselves and their culture and share our own perspectives in order to develop mutual understanding.

Let us stand together, learn together, work together and support each other to speak up about any negative actions we notice. Let us never be silent about racism and intolerance. Together we can foster a culture that refuses to tolerate it, in any shape or form. Together we can also continue to shape a culture that values diversity, kindness and compassion.

To the families and friends affected by Friday’s attack, and indeed to all New Zealanders – we stand together with you. Let us not only mourn this atrocity, but also let it remind us of the importance of working together for a more just and peaceful world.