New Zealand’s police don’t carry guns. But after a white supremacist armed with semiautomatic weapons killed 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in the city of Christchurch in March 2019—the worst mass shooting in the country’s history—some New Zealanders thought they should (Source: Cathrin Schaer, WPR)
“The operating environment has changed,” the former New Zealand police commissioner, Mike Bush, said in a statement several months after the massacre. “Police must ensure our people are equipped and enabled to perform their roles safely and to ensure our communities are, and feel, safe.”
In October that year, the national police announced a project that would see units of armed officers, so-called Armed Response Teams, undertake regular neighborhood patrols, ready to respond to emergencies and high-risk events. Previously, New Zealand’s frontline officers were unarmed, with armed contingents only on call to respond if needed.
A six-month trial of the project began in October 2019 in three districts across New Zealand. But before the data could be evaluated, the entire project was unceremoniously scrapped. This was in part because of widespread public opposition to it. But there was another, perhaps more unexpected reason for the reversal: a unique-in-the-world local body known as the Waitangi Tribunal.
Originally created in 1975 to address the land rights grievances of Indigenous New Zealanders—the Maori—the Waitangi Tribunal is perhaps the longest-surviving truth and reconciliation project in the world. Many other countries, from El Salvador to Germany, have created similar organizations at one time or another to address issues of injustice and the legacies of violence, but most have had a limited purview or lifespan. In contrast, the Waitangi Tribunal has, after 45 years of operation, become an essential institution in New Zealand, and its mandate has evolved massively to cover everything from the preservation of Indigenous language, to Indigenous stewardship of the environment, to a group’s ability to copyright its cultural artifacts and traditions. Its work is even responsible for the fact that, since 2017, both a river and a forest in New Zealand have had the same legal rights as a human.
When the New Zealand police made their initial plans to take up arms, Maori advocates for criminal justice reform filed an emergency claim with the Waitangi Tribunal to halt them, arguing that the community that would be most affected by the policing change—the Maori—had not been adequately consulted. In New Zealand, Maori are nearly eight times more likely to be subjected to force by the police than non-Maori New Zealanders; between 2009 and 2019, two-thirds of those shot by the police were Maori or Pacific Islanders.
The failure to consult the Maori community, advocates argued, constituted a breach of New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, from which the Waitangi Tribunal takes its name. Even as they pushed for the Tribunal to take up the case, in June 2020, thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters took the streets in Auckland, Wellington and other cities, denouncing police violence against New Zealand’s Indigenous communities and making the idea of armed police officers even more unpalatable. By the second week of June, the police had abruptly canned the project, stating that armed units “do not align with the style of policing that New Zealanders expect.”
The Waitangi Tribunal has changed significantly over almost five decades, going from an organization ignored, feared and even demeaned, to a body that is often the first to be consulted when an important social or political change is planned. It has had a significant impact on the way many New Zealanders understand their own society and history—and that may, in time, help to reduce the long-standing inequalities between Maori and non-Maori. At a time when many countries are questioning how to address enduring issues with racism and colonialism, the Waitangi Tribunal may be able to offer an instructive example.
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