Welcome for Afghan human rights defenders, Government House Auckland

As-salamu alaykum, Tena tatou katoa,

Thank you all for being here today. To the Afghan human rights defenders and your family members, welcome to Aotearoa. And thank you Your Excellency for hosting us all here at Government House.

We have with us today from Afghanistan, human rights advocates, journalists, judges, NGO workers, politicians, an athlete, a doctor, an entrepreneur, public servants - amongst many other walks of life. It as a privilege and an honour that our country has been able to give you safe haven.

I’d like to acknowledge my parliamentary colleagues Hon Michael Wood, Hon Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Vanushi Walters MP, and Dan Rosewarne MP.

We have too many distinguished guests from the human rights community to name them all, but in particular I’d like to acknowledge Dame Susan Glazebrook of the Supreme Court who advocated for safe haven for the female judges. There are a number of other advocates here today and I thank you for your work.

I would also like to welcome an extraordinary cross section of the New Zealand human rights community in the room today: judges, lawyers, advocates, campaigners for the rights of LGBTQ+, for people with disabilities, victims of violence, youth, and workers.

As New Zealanders in real time saw the shocking images of Afghanistan falling to the Taliban, almost a year to this day, the Government recognised it had a duty to the Afghan people.

As one of the countries which had a presence in Afghanistan – with 3,500 troops and personnel sent to the country over the past 20 years – we swung into action and established an operation to help evacuate those who assisted, or were otherwise connected with our presence there during this time.

I want to thank the public servants in the room today for what was an outstanding operation New Zealanders can be proud of.

At the same time, we recognised those who had contributed to establishing a vibrant free press alongside a great deal of social activism and judicial reform in Afghanistan were at risk too.

By either promoting human rights, or simply doing what we take for granted here as a normal part of life in a free and open society – running for political office, competing as an athlete, reporting the news, working in the public service – they were viewed as a threat by the insular and oppressive ideology of the Taliban.  

So within the more than 1700 Afghan nationals we resettled during this time, around 200 human rights defenders and their families were granted safe haven here in New Zealand.

The importance of standing up for human rights defenders goes beyond just their own personal safety – vital as this is. It also sends a signal to those standing up to oppression everywhere that if things go wrong, there are countries out there that share their values and have their backs. In a world right now in which we’re seeing regular attacks on human rights and the rules-based international order, it’s never been more important to send this message clearly.

It is of course a tragedy for the huge Afghan diaspora, and all the Afghans now wanting to flee, that they find themselves unable to live in their own country, and a tragedy for Afghanistan that so many of its most talented people have been forced out by the Taliban.

I want to acknowledge the sadness I know many of you feel about being so far from your native soil, and the loved ones you left behind. Not to mention the challenges and difficulties of adjusting to a foreign land.

But my hope is that, while you make a new life in peace and safety, you can also put your talents, and qualifications to use in building our country Aotearoa-New Zealand. And that is part of the reason I have gathered you all here today.

We value your passion for human rights, your willingness to speak up, your commitment to the common good. Don’t be shy about expressing those things in your new country, and in working from here for human rights and democracy in Afghanistan.

I should also note that while we are far from perfect, gender equality is a core value of our nation. The Taliban’s denial of the rights of women and girls is repugnant to our Government and that will continue to be at the centre of our response to their regime.

I am moved by the thought that so many talented Afghan women, and your daughters, will have the chance to live freely, seize opportunities for education and work, and live your best lives in our country.

New Zealand has long taken an outsized role in advancing peace, cooperation, human rights, and the rule of law, internationally. Those same values lie at the heart of our nation’s journey here at home.

And so I invite our new Afghan Kiwis to join us on that journey, and work with us to put human rights at the centre of our nation-building. I hope today you will start conversations that may generate long lasting friendships and opportunities.