New Zealanders woke up to a hard truth recently when we learnt of the historic mass abuse of children in state care, in our care. I don’t think anyone who watched this episode of The Hui will ever forget the harrowing stories of helpless children being forcibly removed from their homes and repeatedly abused by those trusted to care for them.
This was a story of grave human rights abuses on a huge scale. More than 100,000 Kiwi kids were taken from their families and put into state institutions between the 1950s and 1980s, where many suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The extent of the abuse is unknown. We do know that more than half of those taken into care were Maori children, taken from a vulnerable community that suffers the worst outcomes in almost all indicia of state failure – from health and education to youth justice and incarceration.
After chairing the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service, which heard stories from more than 1100 victims, Judge Carolyn Henwood recommended that a comprehensive state inquiry be held to establish the facts. The victims have echoed this call. Although as at September 2016 the Ministry for Social Development had received 1370 direct claims of abuse, and settled one-on-one claims with some 900 victims, no inquiry into the systemic causes of abuse – including to establish responsibility or reach the community of victims – has been held. The groundswell of calls for a full-scale government inquiry culminated in victims of abuse whilst in state care presenting a petition to Parliament on Friday, asking for such.
The most important lesson I learnt from my work on United Nations justice missions is that, for victims, the Right to the Truth is often the key to justice. It offers them an opportunity to tell their story, and to have it acknowledged by the powers that be. It is also a chance to know what went wrong – what forces were used against them – and to know that those responsible have set the record straight. This was the case in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide; the civil war and genocide in the former Yugoslavia; and even for victims of the Khmer Rouge atrocities some 35 years after the fact. When abuses happen en masse, we also have to think beyond restoring the immediate victims. Having an official version of the truth was key to peacebuilding, and reassuring entire communities that their institutions were safe again.
“For victims, the Right to the Truth is often the key to justice.”
In fact, for some time now in the realm of international justice, we have acknowledged a freestanding Right to the Truth. On December 21, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 24 the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. This acknowledges the critical right of victims to an impartial and competent investigation of violations against them. The Right to the Truth includes a victim’s right to tell their story, but also addresses the broader context – like the extent of the abuse and its perpetrators. Importantly, it is the right to have the truth accepted on official record. The trauma associated with secrecy and denial on the part of the very institutions that offended against these victims is unacceptable and a continued breach of their human rights.
Another factor to consider – one which international justice is well adept at addressing – is that where mass abuse is committed by our state institutions we are all affected. We can’t underestimate the effect of a systematic failure like this on entire communities, and on our ability as a society to trust our institutions.
It’s easy to see why we, like New Zealand’s Prime Minister, may be reluctant to investigate something that so deeply cuts into our sense of who we are as a nation. Our national psyche doesn’t normally have to allow for the term “mass human rights violation”. We are the nation that stood against apartheid – for nuclear-free oceans, for universal suffrage. We stand as a counterpoint to our big, loud, atrocity-committing neighbour to the North. We’re used to hearing about abuses on Australian soil – most abhorrently against refugee and indigenous communities, including abuses of both groups while in state care.
“We can’t underestimate the effect of a systematic failure like this on entire communities, and on our ability as a society to trust our institutions.”
But our understanding of ourselves as the nation more likely to do right by its people is exactly why we must put the human rights of victims first in reacting to this disturbing chapter in New Zealand’s history. This includes, as a starting point, realising their Right to the Truth.