Paul Hunt’s first speech as New Zealand’s Chief Human Rights Commissioner took place on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The speech wasn’t a speech about hope for a bright future; it was a warning of what may come.

It makes for a dark first impression of a man who is British-level considerate and smiling more often than not.

“Friends, we live in a dangerous world,” he begins the speech.

The lawyer-turned-human rights scholar and activist then quotes Ireland’s W B Yeats.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

“Are full of passionate intensity.”

Hunt describes Yeats’ 1919 poem The Second Coming as prophetic. Yeats foresaw what might happen in the years before WWII, and Hunt sometimes thinks we need to re-read that poem now.

The world has failed to strike the right balance between civil and political rights, and economic and social rights.

This has led to some communities being neglected and disillusionment has crept in, Hunt says, as he talks about some of the driving forces behind the UK’s Brexit.

“I fear that if we don’t get it right in New Zealand, if we don’t reset the balance between individual and community, and if we don’t set the balance between civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights, our society will be less healthy.”

This inequality will lead to poverty.

The safety and dignity of all New Zealanders is front of mind following the mosque attacks on March 15. Photo: David Williams

“We know it’s a dangerous mix from other periods in history, and we’ve forgotten those lessons of history.

“It really irks me. We’ve been here before.”

He talks about the similarities between the current political climate, and pre-WWII.

“It’s not quite facism. It’s an authoritarian populism. It’s not quite facism, maybe it’s neo-facism, so it’s complicated.

“The parallels aren’t exact, if they’re exact it would be easier, they’re not – they’re more muddled than that.”

As the world did in the 1940s, we need to take a holistic approach to human rights, he says. (Hunt – a quintessential academic – apologises for the jargon.)

Updating NZ laws

For many Kiwis, their fears became a reality on March 15 when a gunman killed 50 Muslims praying in two Christchurch mosques.

The hard truth of that day has helped shake what Hunt has described as a complacency towards human rights.

It’s prompted discussions about hate speech, white supremacy, and racially or religiously charged harassment or attacks. But these issues were brewing before the Christchurch terror attacks.

Last year the country struggled to draw the line between free speech and hate speech, with appearances from Don Brash and Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneaux sparking a sometimes ugly conversation.

It’s a balance Hunt does not think New Zealand has quite achieved.

While some immediate steps need to be taken in the wake of March 15, the country is now ready for a broader debate about speech, and a review of the laws governing human rights and speech.

There’s no neat formula he can bestow on the country – a democratic process is needed to figure that out.

Justice Minister Andrew Little says this work is on the agenda, and the Ministry of Justice will be looking at whether the legislation governing hate speech and hate crime needs adjusting.

In the wake of Christchurch, and after more frequent discussions relating to hate speech and hate crimes, he is now prioritising this work.

“Human rights are – in my humble opinion – all about the dignity and wellbeing of individuals and communities.”

As well as the Human Rights Act, the Crimes Act and the Harmful digital Communications Act need to align in order to keep people safe from attacks and comments motivated by hate towards a particular group of people – or people with a specific characteristic, such as religion, sexual orientation, or race.

While there’s been anecdotal evidence of an increase in race-related and religion-related crime, it’s hard to quantify. The Crimes Act does not include this as a specific offence. This leaves officers to note the aspect of hate on an ad hoc basis, something they have been doing more consistently since last October.

As New Zealand comes into its own as a more mature, democratic nation, now is the time to revisit the law, Hunt says.

Redefining a right

The dual national has long-coveted the job as New Zealand’s Chief Human Rights Commissioner.

After studying law at Cambridge, and working at a firm of solicitors – “always with the intention of jumping ship” – he worked and studied at the University of Waikato, taught at the University of Essex, and spent time as a UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, following time as a rapporteur for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

During his time with the UN he witnessed horrific abuses of human rights.

When he talks about his time in Israel and Lebanon during the conflict in the summer of 2006, he has the look of someone going back to that place in time.

In Beirut he saw cluster bombs lying on the ground. And in Israel, hospitals were partially destroyed by Lebanon’s rockets.

In Northern Uganda, he visited a warzone, full of internally displaced people.

Human rights go beyond the obvious measures, he says.

“Human rights are – in my humble opinion – all about the dignity and wellbeing of individuals and communities.”

It’s a definition Hunt’s wrestled with in previous lives. He now knows human rights are about the ability of a whole community to enjoy a safe, secure, dignified life.

“If you take that as the touchstone, some profound things happen.

“You don’t just think of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act – important though that is; you don’t just talk about the right to a fair trial – important though that is; you don’t just think about prohibition against torture – important though that is.

“If you think of human rights as ensuring that everyone has a safe, secure, dignified life, then you start to think a bit differently.”

You start to think about housing issues, accessibility to education, whether wages are decent and the standard of living is adequate. This definition leads to areas, which have not been given enough attention, he says.

New Zealand does have a good human rights record, compared to other countries – but the competition isn’t great.

“For a high-income country there are unacceptable levels of poverty in New Zealand, and poverty is a human rights issue … we’ve got to do more to address the widening social and economic inequalities in our society.”

When you do a good job of scrutinising a country through a human rights lens, things are exposed. And it’s the same in New Zealand.

“For a high-income country there are unacceptable levels of poverty in New Zealand, and poverty is a human rights issue.”

In a TedX talk from 2014 Hunt tells a story to emphasise the neverending nature of his work.

His son Robbie – about six at the time – anwsered a friend inquiring about Hunt’s job, by telling him: ‘my Dad travels around the world doing good’.

This was followed by a pause and a theatrical sigh (Robbie’s now an actor). ‘But it never works.’

In Robbie’s eyes, Hunt can’t have be successful in his mission, if he continued to pack his bags and jet off to another country.

Human rights in grassroots NZ

In a bid to improve Kiwis’ rights, Hunt is embarking on a “listening tour”.

Human rights lawyers have tended to dominate the discussion, and while they have an important role to play, there’s an alternative approach, which doesn’t involve the courts – “it’s much more bottom-up and participatory”.

Hunt says he’s trying to involve everyone in the hope of emboldening individuals and communities.

On Race Relations Day last month, after delivering a well-received and well-documented speech at the University of Otago, Hunt went on without the cameras to visit Corstorphine in southwest Dunedin.

The community has been affected by the closure of the Cadbury Factory – a source of income for families – and the closure of the local school in 2010.

The closure of Dunedin’s Cadbury factory affected local communities. Photo: David Williams

There’s a fish and chip shop, and a Four Square, with the types of prices you’d expect.

Corstorphine also has issues with housing, access to health services, gangs and crime.

“There’s a dark cloud over the area,” Corstorphine Community Hub coordinator Mere Jouanides says.

The hub was set up in 2013 as a gathering place for low-income earners and beneficiaries to connect with others in the community, and learn about services they can access.

The team at the hub set up a health clinic after hearing of a mother who walked her sick child 12 kilometres to the hospital.

By Hunt’s definition, this is a community being denied human rights.

Politicians and authority figures have visited before. “They’ll bring the plant and the handshakes, and there’s no follow up.”

This time feels different.

“It was nice to be able to talk to someone who can hopefully go home and make a difference.”

A lot of the families are shy, and not open to strangers – “especially high-portfolio strangers, like politicians and CEOs and corporate suits”.

When Hunt and his team leave, the Corstorphine locals stand in the driveway to wave them off. It’s like saying goodbye to family, Jouadines says.

The next stop is Kawerau – a small North Island town synonymous with grief.

“It was nice to be able to talk to someone who can hopefully go home and make a difference.”

That balance between individual human rights and community isn’t right yet, but Hunt says New Zealand is better placed than many, because of the Treaty of Waitangi.

Working with tangata whenua and other communities will help tease through how New Zealand can better honour the Treaty and enrich contemporary understandings of human rights. If done right, New Zealand can lead the world, he says.

A sense of injustice

Hunt never had an epiphany, which motivated him to fight for the rights of others. He sort of wishes there was a defining moment.

From adolescence he had a sense of wanting to change things. Non-conformist speeches resonated with the young boy growing up in a Methodist school, and he had a craving for social justice – though he didn’t have the words for it then.

“From quite an early age I had a sense that things are pretty good for me – Pākehā, middle-class etcetera – but I did have a sense from somewhere things were not good for others. And this didn’t sit well with me.”

Little – the minister in charge of his appointment – says Hunt was chosen for the amount of respect he holds for his academic work and intellect, and for his experience.

This comes at a time when the Human Rights Commission is struggling.

For the past year the commission has been marred with internal struggles, following the failed handling of a sexual harassment case.

Justice Minister Andrew Little says he is prioritising work to make sure NZ’s human rights framework is fit for purpose. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Since the staff shake-up triggered by the damning report from retired Judge Coral Shaw, Hunt has been appointed Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paula Tesoriero is the Disability Rights Commissioner, and Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo is Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner. The new race Relations Commissioner is yet to be appointed, with Susan Devoy leaving amid the overhaul.

“[Shaw’s] findings reveal a system that failed to provide proper care and support for sexual harassment claims made by staff,” Little said at the time.

The review found the policy used to investigate the sexual harassment incident was “aged and outdated”. And there was a “deep divide” between some staff and managers, as well distrust of some commissioners.

Hunt says it’s not easy to create and maintain a flourishing internal culture, while also embarking on significant projects to improve the human rights of all New Zealanders.

Making sure the process of implementing the measures laid out in the Shaw report is completed sits high on his agenda.

And he will keep trying to strike the correct balance of safety and freedom, both within the commission, and for the whole of New Zealand.

When asked whether his grown children now think he’s reached success in his fight for human rights, he answers with a laugh.

“I don’t know.

“They are hugely supportive, perhaps that’s the best measure. If they thought it was all a load of BS, they probably wouldn’t be supportive,” he says.

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