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Healing after terror: Sources of strength from the UN community

OPINION: A police car hurtled through red lights, its sirens were screaming and tires screeching. Three heavily armed police officers sat in the back. They wore black helmets and thick black vests. Their faces bore grim determination.

Sitting on my shoulders, my 1-year-old daughter was not bothered in the slightest. But I felt uneasy. The sickly smell of burning rubber had made my stomach turn. We went back inside.

My family and I live overseas. We were in Christchurch on March 15 to introduce my daughter to the beautiful, friendly country of her nationality. Yet that afternoon, the image our country was being redefined. New Zealand was being reluctantly dragged into a collection of countries that it never wished to be a part of. One whose membership it never anticipated – those who have experienced a mass casualty terrorist attack on home soil.

The Christchurch terror attacks unsettled me more than I expected. I work for the United Nations to help governments prevent and respond to terrorism. We work throughout the world and constantly emphasise that no country is immune from the threat. This is an international problem. It does not respect borders. But I had never fully known the gravity of that statement, until now. A heinous act has taken place in Aotearoa. I feel a putrid sensation of sorrow, rage and shame.

In doing so, it is helpful to remember that we are not walking this path alone. These barbaric acts have happened elsewhere before. Many other communities have been through these darks days. Many of them have come out stronger as a result. Now is the time to ask – what did they do? What worked? What did not? How can they help us to ensure that this evil never repeats?

The UN and its Member States are the best avenue for asking these questions. The UN is a global community that was set up to maintain international peace and security and "to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems". Made up of 193 countries, as well as many specialist agencies and organisations, the UN holds an immense body of knowledge, skills and experience.

Much of this knowledge has been crystallised in the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy that was adopted by the General Assembly in 2006. It has four pillars. The first is focused on addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism. The last pillar focuses on human rights and the rule of law.
This strategy is reviewed every two years. In the most recent review, in 2018, the General Assembly emphasised that "the enhancement of interreligious and intercultural understanding and respect among peoples … are among the most important elements in promoting cooperation, in combating terrorism and in countering violent extremism as and when conducive to terrorism".

To convert these ideals into practical, tangible steps, the Secretary-General has prepared a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which New Zealand strongly supported. The plan recognises that security measures are essential, but they are not enough on their own. Stronger security must be accompanied with systematic prevention efforts that address the drivers of extremism, such as discrimination and the misuse of beliefs.

To do this, the Plan of Action sets out eight priority areas. These include engaging communities, empowering youth, dialogue and conflict prevention. The plan also encourages countries to develop their own National Plans of Action. These can be used to craft local solutions, tailored to each country's circumstances.
New Zealand has the skills and resources to forge a powerful National Plan of Action. When developed in an inclusive, participatory manner, where all voices are heard, such a plan would build social cohesion, respect for diversity and peaceful coexistence. This sort of plan would also provide a way of converting shared values into tangible, actionable steps. For example, the opposite of terrorism is inclusiveness and aroha. A Plan of Action with a Kiwi flair might convert these values into deeds throughout our communities.

Other countries have already made such plans. For instance, Norway launched their Action Plan against Radicalisation and Violent Extremism in 2014. Sweden has a similar plan. Closer to home, Indonesia is at the final stages of launching its own. New Zealand can learn from these experiences and build on them.
We have a unique problem-solving approach. It would add immense value to the search to solve a fundamental problem of our times.
It may not feel like it right now, but New Zealand's broken heart will eventually heal. We must make sure that it heals stronger. Our future generations, my daughter's generation, must inherit a more peaceful, tolerant and inclusive society. Our UN whānau can support us to do that.

Timothy Wilson is a Terrorism Prevention Programme Officer in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (, twitter: @UN_TimW). The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the United Nations.

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