Leticia Alvarez

The IAWJ Biennial Conference was an event whose takeaways I will cherish far into the future. I was in awe of the inspiring women and men around me, striving to educate themselves and honing in on key issues, stories, and values, to incorporate them into the decisions that shape Aotearoa and ensure the rule of law. I emerged from the conference with a critical understanding of the key issues, and with a renewed sense of hope. The international aspect reminded me of the significance of these issues worldwide, and that we are not alone in battling them.

I was particularly moved by the story of Ngati Whatua at Bastion Point, with Hon. Sharon Hawke and her brother. Understanding the individual histories ranging across Aotearoa, and hearing exactly what happened and why left the room in silence at times, overpowered by what we had just heard. It is necessary to understand the past so that we can adequately redress harms and improve the present and the future. Aotearoa’s bicultural history must be learned in detail, from hapū to iwi.

The international aspect added a richness to the words of Aotearoa’s speakers and enhanced the global dimension. It was extremely valuable to hear about practical and principled approaches, specific practices to embrace a nation’s biculturalism from both top-down and bottom-up. Lillian McLellan spoke on how Canadian courts and the Canadian system was reconciling with Indigenous legal systems and doing more than merely recognize it. ‘Narratives of despair do not define us,’ she said, while outlining toolkits to engage in indigenous law. Later, Denise Clark spoke on Rangatahi Courts and cultural sensitivity as engagement with your identity, and embodying law, culture, and faith in one process. “Transforming the voice of justice to allow Maori voices to pass through,” resonated in particular with me. It is important to maintain an awareness of all that exists around us, not merely what we see.

The conference was comprehensive in its engagement with issues of immense complexity, at local and global levels. I was shaken by the courage and conviction of Hon. Anisa Rasooli and Nafisa Kabuli of Afghanistan, in returning to their work despite the murder of women judges. They face a future that guarantees limitation on their rights, and yet they are willing to risk their lives to uphold their values. As Martin Luther King said, “an injustice somewhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Their pain is ours. We cannot turn a blind eye.

I was especially moved by Zeid Al Hussein’s steadfast ethics and principled, compassionate way of understanding the world. When speaking of the need for human rights, he said, “you take 22,000 breaths a day. You don’t worry about the next until someone is strangling you. Many of us feel the same way about human rights, until the day we feel vulnerable without them.” The behind-the-scenes that occurs in ensuring human rights is crucial. We cannot forget their importance, and cannot dim our voices when it comes to their violation.

Lastly, Mary Robinson’s call to make the climate crisis personal has followed me since. It is true – the personal is political. She stressed the impacts of climate change and inter-generational injustice, injustice to nature and ignoring indigenous wisdom, and the inequalities of COVID-19. Collective human behavior matters, but the importance of government matters (as proved by NZ) Compassion, kindness, empathy in community.