Human Rights Commission begins conciliatory process with protesters

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 23 Feb 2022, 7:39am

Human Rights Commission begins conciliatory process with protesters

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 23 Feb 2022, 7:39am

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Witness account - how Wellington mob turned violent 
Parliament protest: Why today is a turning point after riot police action 

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt says he has started a "conciliatory process" in an effort to deescalate the protest at Parliament. 

It comes on day 16 of the protest's occupation at Parliament, which turned violent yesterday following a police operation to further encircle the demonstration. 

The meeting will be held this afternoon and includes representatives from Voices for Freedom and the Human Rights Commission. Others represented included the police, Freedom and Rights Coalition and independents. 

"The job given to the Human Rights Commission, Te Kāhui Tika Tangata, by Parliament is to listen, conciliate, educate and advance human rights and responsibilities for all," Hunt said. 

"It's clear that the protesters who I have met with have very real stories of loss and suffering. They feel broken and discarded due to the impact of Covid-19 health measures on their lives." 

Hunt said some of the protesters had lost loved ones had had "suffered the side-effects of vaccination" or lost their jobs. 

"I have a duty to listen to their concerns to understand how their human rights have been impacted. 

"In my discussions, I make it clear that I am not affirming their views and I condemn the outrageous conduct of some protesters. I also acknowledge the harmful impact the protest has had on many in our community." 

Hunt said listening to the protesters' claims was an important contribution to help prevent the protests from dragging across months or turning into further violence, as other Covid-related protests overseas had overseas. 

"In such a heated, fraught moment, we have to move from fear, to hope, and that cannot be done without listening and talking." 

The conciliation being led by Hunt would continue in stages and involve a range of stakeholders, including mana whenua, police, the Commission's chief mediator and Wellington Mayor Andy Foster. 

Hunt had also asked the Prime Minister to ensure her government engaged in this "constructive process". 

Hunt had extensive experience engaging in difficult conflicts as a United Nations Special Rapporteur, including as an investigator into Guantanamo Bay, as well as the Lebanon/Israel conflict of 2006, the statement said. 

The Commission recently provided a report on special conditions that vaccine mandates should meet to fulfill human rights requirements. 

The Commission has faced an unprecedented increase in complaints and inquiries since the beginning of the traffic light system. 

It has also been running a campaign, Dial-it-Down, to encourage people to maintain respectful communication with each other online and in person. 

Earlier, Wellington mayor Andy Foster defended twice meeting with protesters, saying police had wanted him to do it. 

Speaking to Nick Mills on Newstalk ZB's Wellington mornings, Foster said he had now met with protesters twice, with the support of police. 

"I got in touch with the police at the highest level and said 'look, do you think this is potentially valuable and helpful' and the answer was yes," he said. 

"The police are talking too, and if they didn't think it was worth talking, the police wouldn't be doing it either." 

While he respected the government's decision not to engage with protesters, he said only dialogue was going to resolve the protest. 

"We can all stand on the sidelines and say "please go" but that's not actually going to achieve that, it's only when you're getting in there and listening to people and talking to people when you actually have a chance of getting a result." 

"We're seeing quite a lot of people – business leaders, iwi leaders, significant people and former prime ministers – that are saying that actually there needs to be some dialogue." 
Without dialogue he said the only options for resolving the protest were allowing time, or intervening with violence – both of which were unattractive. 

He maintained his two meetings had been productive. The first, based around graffiti on the Cenotaph, had resulted in its removal, while the second had focused on reducing the protest's impact on the city. 

The occupation at Parliament continues. Photo / George Heard

The occupation at Parliament continues. Photo / George Heard 

Foster admitted the protest is made up of diverse groups, and it was difficult to know whether he had spoken to people that could act decisively for the demonstration as a whole. 

"It is challenging, and police are finding it challenging to find the people that are going to make decisions … but that's part of talking – if you don't talk, you're never going to know." 

He said his meeting with protesters was not legitimising the actions of those that behaved violently. 

He did not know when his next meeting with protest influencers would be but expected it to be very soon. 

Wellington city councilor Fleur Fitzsimmons said the mayor's meeting with protesters sent a "dangerous message" to people who wanted to be heard by government. 

"When he met with the protesters, it sent a dangerous message that the violence and the threats and the spreading of conspiracy theories have no consequence, and that that's how you get heard in this city," she told Nick Mills on Newstalk ZB's Wellington Mornings. 

"I really don't want that to be the message to a lot of community groups that try really hard to get the attention of the mayor and councillors." 

She said she was "sick to death" of the protest in Wellington. 

"These protesters have taken over our streets, schoolgirls are not being educated at school because of these protesters, businesses are closing down, residents are fuming. 

"I want them to go home, I am absolutely sick of it." 

"But I don't want misleading and dangerous conversations being undertaken by our mayor, because I don't think they're actually likely to help at the end of the day." 

Meanwhile Police Minister Poto Williams said the protests had been "really distressing" for the people of Wellington and particularly for those in close proximity to Parliament. 

"Nobody deserves to be living or working in that environment," she said. 

"It's distressing that it's come to the point where people are harmed and our police that are trying to keep us safe are being put in harm's way." 

She backed "one hundred per cent" the work of police over recent days to minimize the impact of the protest on Wellington, and said the government doing everything it could to support police. 

"The police have been extraordinary, they do put themselves on the line and they shouldn't have to have the kinds of treatment they've been getting," she said. 

"The protest needs to become lawful if it is to continue. My view is that it shouldn't continue." 

She said everyone in the precinct of Parliament had now heard the messaging of protesters, and it was time for them to go home. 

Protest leaders are struggling to effect change as influencers within the mob continue to cause havoc, says Police Commissioner Andrew Coster. 

And he says calling in the army would be an extreme situation, as police remain convinced that de-escalation is the best strategy. 

"We've got a good border around this thing - we're very focused on shrinking the protests so that we return the city to Wellingtonians," Coster told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking. 

Coster said some protest leaders were giving police support, but struggling to effect change. 

"There is a genuine conversation going with a group of protest leaders. I'm really concerned about the university and the impact on students coming back. 

"I'm concerned about public transport, and we're looking for them to shift the dial on those areas." 

But he said a group within the mob were still causing issues. 

"The whole situation is meaning that those influencers are able to cause havoc around the place so the whole protest is contributing to that." 

He said police "remained of the view that de escalation is the only strategy that we'll see come out of this in good shape." 

"And that needs to be a combination of police taking action when it's appropriate," he said. 

A protester sitting in front of police in riot gear. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A protester sitting in front of police in riot gear. Photo / Mark Mitchell 

Calling in the Defence force would be a "very extreme situation". 

"I don't think any of us wants to see soldiers on our streets and it's unlikely to land in a good place for us as a country, particularly in the longer term. 

"So police [are] well placed to deal with this and I just want to acknowledge the outstanding work that our people are doing out there every day." 

Hundreds of staff were involved in the response, some returning from other duties. 

On whether Winston Peters was helping or not, he said it wasn't his place to comment on what politicians were doing. 

The streets around Parliament have been quiet as the anti-mandate protest enters day 16, in stark contrast to the dramatic scenes of the past two mornings. 

This morning, both protesters and police are visible on the surrounding streets, however all is calm - save for some sort of medical event. 

Around 5.20am an Ambulance could be seen arriving on Whitmore Street, and protesters, paramedics and police surrounding a person in need of medical attention. 

Four protesters could be seen keeping watch at the barriers where Molesworth Street meets Lambton Quay, but there is a noticeable reduction in the number of vehicles parked illegally along Molesworth Street. 

It comes in light of rising tensions at the anti-Covid-restrictions protest at Parliament with police actions ramping up and reports of infighting among groups present. 

In the early hours of both Monday and Tuesday morning police moved in, some armed with riot shields, to install concrete barriers around the perimeter of the occupation. 

Yesterday three officers were hospitalised after an unknown substance was thrown on them and three people were arrested - including the driver of a car that deliberately drove towards police shortly after 6am. 

After installing concrete barriers in eight locations on Monday to restrict access to the wider protest site, police returned in the early hours to shift some further in. 

Police assistant commissioner Richard Chambers said officers had at the time equipped themselves with shields, with reports protesters planned to again throw faeces at them. 

Following the attempted car-ramming and substance thrown at officers, Chambers said they were appalled by the "absolutely disgraceful" behaviour of protesters, and highlighted concerning suggestions of sexual assaults at the protest camp. 

A police officer is treated after a substance was thrown at them. Photo / George Heard

A police officer is treated after a substance was thrown at them. Photo / George Heard 

Chambers said while they were continuing to negotiate with protest leaders who were supportive of returning the protest to a lawful one, those leaders had lost control over the wider protest. 

Chambers said they were working towards returning the occupation to a "peaceful, lawful protest", with illegally-parked vehicles removed, within days. 

"The sooner the better that is for everybody." 

The past two days have marked a stark contrast to the weekend, when surging numbers and even a concert on Saturday gave the occupation a family-friendly festival feeling and sense of momentum behind the cause. 

Come Monday many protesters had departed, a lot simply because the weekend had ended and with plans to return, but others reported on social media leaving after the mood changed, with more infighting and disputes over the way forward. 

Police in riot gear during day 15 of the Covid-19 convoy protest and occupation at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Police in riot gear during day 15 of the Covid-19 convoy protest and occupation at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell 

Some protesters have criticised Leighton Baker, former New Conservative Party leader, who has been negotiating with police, accusing him of not giving enough notice about police actions and capitulating to their demands. 

Others have speculated about people being planted by police to stir agitation - something Chambers vehemently denied. 

Media also continue to be confronted when reporting from inside the protest camp on Parliament grounds, despite assurances from protest leaders this would not happen. 

Police have evidently sought to take advantage of this lull in activity and rising divisions, and over the past two days have blocked off vehicle access to prevent people from returning and others from joining. 

These actions have also hindered a range of services essential to maintaining the occupation, from trucks entering to service the portaloos to the delivery of food and water and rubbish collection, all adding to the tensions among protesters. 

At about 5pm about 100 police returned, some donning riot gear, to those blockades, with a forklift driver removing the blocks from pallet crates they'd been sitting atop to make them even more difficult to shift. 

Despite some initial anxiety among protesters speakers urged the crowd to remain calm with chants of "love and peace", but the sheer police presence again increased tension among those gathered. 

The high point of Tuesday appeared to be the arrival of New Zealand First leader and former deputy prime minister Winston Peters - one of only a few former politicians to have visited the occupation (Act leader David Seymour the only current MP who has met with protesters). 

The 76-year-old Peters spoke at length with protesters while unmasked, earning mostly supportive chants, although at least one protester aggressively confronted him about his previous support for Covid restrictions, calling him a "traitor". 

Peters refused to speak to media at length, and although responding to questions from protesters, he criticised the Government for not having met with them. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described the behaviour of protesters and attacks on police in Wellington as "disgraceful". 

"There are a group that are increasingly acting out in a violent way towards police officers who are only doing their job," Ardern said. 

All parties in Parliament have said they would not engage with those who were breaking the law in the occupation in Wellington at the moment, Ardern said. 

To anyone who has said this is a peaceful protest, they could surely see now that in some quarters it was not, Ardern said. 

"What is happening in Wellington is not New Zealand. To see that difference in view being expressed [at the protest] does not make us a divided society." 

National leader Christopher Luxon has since reiterated that the National Party do not endorse the actions of the protesters. 

"We have no support for that." 

The protest aside, New Zealanders around the country were telling him they were immensely frustrated and were really confused, lost and frustrated about where we are going, he told AM. 

Luxon disagreed with Winston Peters decision to meet with the protesters. 

"We are rock solid in opposition to the protests. The behaviour down there has been shameful and utterly, utterly unacceptable."