OPINION: The Christchurch terrorist atrocity of March 15, 2019, highlighted some important lessons for New Zealand.
For one thing, it revealed that even a geographically isolated state like New Zealand is not immune to an evolving and increasingly complex threat of violent extremism in a globalising world.
In addition, it underlined the need to strengthen the bonds of community and democracy in New Zealand to boost resilience to the narratives of hate and division, which fuel the threat of terrorism within and outside our country.
In the post-Christchurch era, it is clear New Zealand faces continuing political and military challenges in countering the terrorist threat.
As US academic Martha Crenshaw has indicated, terrorism is “the deliberate and systematic use of the threat of violence to coerce changes in political behaviour”.
Acts of terrorism may be state-sponsored, such as the blowing up of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985 by French intelligence agents, or initiated by non-state actors such as the white supremacist who carried out the appalling attacks on two Christchurch mosques, which killed 51 people.
At the risk of some over-simplification, many of the US-led efforts intended to counter terrorism in the post-9/11 era have been concerned with military efforts to address its violent symptoms, rather than focusing on its political causes.
New Zealand must avoid going down that narrow path, particularly as the threat of transnational terrorism has been transformed by the advent of the online era in the 21st century.
During the last decade and a half, digital networks and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have provided an opportunity for extremist organisations to propagate their ideas to wider audiences, and thus radicalise and recruit “lone actors” to carry out violent acts of terrorism.
It was this environment that helped to generate the terror attacks at Christchurch in 2019, conducted by an attacker equipped with GoPro technology to record and share the images of his atrocity online with other white supremacists.
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While the Christchurch attacks served to unify rather than divide New Zealand, it is clear in the long term that enhancing social inclusion is a vital barrier to the hate-filled and racist ideologies of violent extremism.
Building greater community resilience in New Zealand involves an ever-increasing recognition of the special constitutional and cultural position of Māori, addressing past injustices associated with the European settlement of the country, and deepening links with the Pacific and Indo-Pacific region.
But the process of tackling injustice is not a purely national concern.
After the Christchurch attacks, New Zealand cannot remain silent when authoritarian states, as well as some traditional allies, engage in actions that erode the international rules-based order and contribute to a climate in which the ideas of extremism gain traction.
New Zealand was surely right to recently join with a major grouping of liberal democracies to publicly condemn China’s alleged cyber intrusions, and express its concerns about Beijing’s repressive human rights policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
But Jacinda Ardern’s Government was relatively tongue-tied when it came to commenting on the insurrection by President Trump’s supporters on Capitol Hill on January 6 this year, the Biden administration’s unreserved support for Israel’s right to defend itself against stateless Palestinians in May, and the British government’s apparent willingness to undermine the Good Friday Accord to accommodate Brexit.
At the same time, the Ardern Government’s record in dealing with apprehended New Zealand citizens with links to violent extremist organisations has been patchy.
While it should be applauded for accepting the legal responsibility for bringing Islamic State terror suspect Suhayra Aden and her two young children to New Zealand after Canberra revoked her Australian citizenship, it has shown much less willingness to bring another IS terror suspect, Mark Taylor, back from the Middle East to face justice in this country.
Nevertheless, the Government is still in an exceptionally strong position to bolster the international co-operation that is so essential for countering terrorism.
Ardern’s compassionate but decisive leadership after the Christchurch terror attacks (and her Government’s widely admired response to Covid-19) has significantly boosted the international standing of New Zealand.
Furthermore, the Christchurch Call initiative launched by Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron to curb online extremism has won the support of more than 55 states, including Joe Biden’s US administration.
The precedent of collaboration between a small state and a middle power is an important one, given the current void in great-power leadership, and points to more opportunities for New Zealand to shape the international agenda in dealing with violent extremism – a problem that knows no borders.
Much needs to be done. Constraining or abolishing the veto of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and reforming the global economic system, are among the reforms urgently needed to create a fairer world and one that is more resilient to the appeal of violent extremism.
Robert G. Patman is a Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and a specialist in International Relations at the University of Otago. He spoke at the Hui on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism in Christchurch in June.