OPINION

Around the world, people are building societies based on fairness, justice and kindness.

Unfortunately, protecting people’s rights isn’t a priority for many governments. Thus, examples prioritising humanity are vital. Previously, Aotearoa New Zealand has sought to be such an example.

In the aftermath of the devastating Auckland supermarket attack of September 3, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that authorities spent several years trying to find their way around legal protections keeping the perpetrator on New Zealand soil.

In attempting to deport him, she criticised the protections that prevented them from doing so. Suggesting that the rules protecting the rights of those at risk of deportation might be bypassed if they hinder other government functions is misplaced and dangerous.

These legal protections ensure people are not returned to their persecutors if they face a real risk of serious human rights violations should they be deported. They are vital to keep all of us safe from torture and other heinous acts.

This bedrock of international human rights law is known as the principle of non-refoulement. It applies not only to refugees, but to anyone who might face such danger, even if they have entered or stayed in a state’s territory irregularly.

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s recent words, Aotearoa New Zealand has already recognised the value of the rights enshrined in applicable United Nations human rights treaties that protect people against refoulement by incorporating them into the 2009 Immigration Act. This tragic event should not be used to undermine them.

The incident should, of course, lead to a healthy reflection of what might have been done differently in order to build better procedures that protect everyone.

The perpetrator had a host of personal challenges that complicated his case and confounded the authorities charged with keeping him and the community safe.

Dr Clarke Jones, one of the perpetrator’s assessors through his trial and incarceration, noted how the experiences of kidnapping and torture in Sri Lanka – and later incarceration in solitary confinement in New Zealand – inflamed “significant” mental health problems.

In 2018, Dr Jones reported that the attacker was not a lost cause and his trauma needed to be urgently addressed. Unfortunately, the interventions recommended by Dr Jones were not implemented.

Authorities should consider whether or not the efforts to strip the perpetrator of his refugee status and deport him actually did any good in solving the twin problems of his mental health and adoption of violent ideology. I suspect they did not.

And I can only hope that in the future authorities would devote more effort to rehabilitating someone similar, who is clearly teetering on a precipice, than
they would trying to incarcerate and unlawfully expel them.

Questions must also be answered about the repeated attempts to cancel his refugee status and deport him, despite his documented experiences of torture and persecution. Refugees and protected persons should be given due process in the same way that any citizen would be if accused or convicted of a crime.

This man was still deserving of protection, despite the crimes for which he was duly tried in court.

Even if he had been convicted of a further crime and imprisoned again, he still should not have been deported to a place where he might face torture—which is, admittedly, a difficult truth to accept for all those impacted by his actions.

Because he was kidnapped and tortured in his home country — and the risk of that happening again remained, as Prime Minister Ardern was advised — New Zealanders should be proud that, despite the incredibly difficult circumstances he presented to the authorities, he was not sent back to danger.

The Prime Minister and other prominent politicians’ suggestion that he should have been deported back to his persecutors breaks the very foundation of protection that has been purposely included in domestic laws and which sets the paradigm of how states should protect all people from torture.

Protecting people’s rights is always the right thing to do. Aotearoa New Zealand has sought to be a beacon and example for the world to emulate in its respect for human rights; it must not fall victim to a knee-jerk response that would ultimately roll back protections for the people who most need them.

• Jennifer Foster is a refugee and migrant rights researcher for the International Secretariat of Amnesty International.

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