Pitcairn Trials Bill – Second Reading

The Green Party will be abstaining on this bill, because on the one hand the Green Party supports the main purpose of the bill, which is to assist bringing to justice those believed to be responsible for sex offences. We treat sex crimes very seriously, and we wish to have any alleged victims adequately supported and having the opportunity to see the alleged offenders brought to a fair trial process. On the other hand, we are not convinced that having the trials in New Zealand is the best solution, either for the alleged victims or for the community.

The Green Party supported this bill to select committee, knowing that it had been controversial in the Pitcairn community. We wanted to hear people’s views on it, particularly the views of the Pitcairners themselves. All the public evidence we heard in the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committee, both written and oral, was against the bill. The select committee was assured by both the mayor of Pitcairn, Steve Christian, and the Pitcairn public defender, Paul Dacre, that all Pitcairn residents were in favour of any trials being held on the island, not in New Zealand. Submissions by Pitcairn women living on Pitcairn and those living in New Zealand supported this view.

The Green Party’s approach to politics is to listen closely to what the community wants. If we act in a way that is contrary to community wishes, we will undermine the achievement of our goals. In this case, for New Zealanders to ignore the Pitcairn community’s obvious wishes will make it harder for women to get justice if they have been sexually abused.

It seems clear to us that these trials require the cooperation of the community to succeed, not least in getting all the necessary evidence before the court. For the British Government and the New Zealand Government to ignore the community’s views, to roll right over the community’s wishes, will be counter-productive.

Let us look at the Pitcairn community’s arguments for holding the trials on Pitcairn.

Firstly, the Pitcairn community argues that it has the facilities on the island. In fact, as the previous speaker mentioned, the British recently built cells and accommodation there in anticipation of the trials being held on the island, before they changed their minds as to the venue. Pitcairners have experience of hosting large numbers of people, and clearly there could be offshore support from the British for a trial. There could be a British support ship on hand. This may cost the British a bit, but it would payoff if it produced appropriate justice.

After deciding that trials should be held in New Zealand, the British promised a videoconference link between New Zealand and Pitcairn. They envisaged assisting people on Pitcairn to give evidence to a New Zealand court, but it could just as easily be used the other way round, that is, New Zealand-based witnesses giving evidence to an island-based trial.

It is of concern to Pitcairners, both those living in New Zealand and those on Pitcairn, that several people, both defendants and witnesses, may have to leave the island for the trial in a way that would undermine the country’s viability. The population is around 50 people, and many of these are older and not able-bodied enough to do much of the heavy work, including operating the longboats to get goods and people ashore.

The British have said that Pitcairn-based defendants might not have to leave the island if they can communicate with a New Zealand trial by video link. However, it is quite likely that the judge will declare that justice is best served by the defendant being in the courtroom. The defendants and their counsel might well have the same opinion.

Secondly, the Pitcairners argue that their national rights are being violated by having the trials in New Zealand. Pitcairn is on the UN list of non-self-governing territories, and under UN protocols the British Government is obliged to move towards more, not less, self-government.

The decision to hold the trials in New Zealand was made without even consulting a single Pitcairn Islander. The British admit this. The British keep pushing for these trials to be in New Zealand, even though there is vocal opposition from what seems to be all Pitcairners. Both these actions by the British are contrary to united Nations principles and the requirements of the British towards the Pitcairn people. The Pitcairn people are taking a case to the United Nations on this very issue. New Zealand has often upheld the rights of Pacific peoples to self-determination. We should not be part of a trial process that denies this right to Pitcairners.

We heard in the select committee that Pitcairn people have their own culture and a distinct language. They have survived in difficult, isolated circumstances for over 200 years. They may be a small nation, but that does not make their rights and survival any less important. Colonialism has crushed too many minority languages and people. We do not want to add to their number by destroying Pitcairn society. I certainly do not want to have it on my conscience that I destroyed a country.

Also, the essence of justice is that people have the right to be tried in their own nation, in front of the people of that nation, and the people of that nation have the right to be able to view the court processes taking place in their nation. To hold trials outside their country denies those rights, and also takes the trials out of their proper national and social context. Some might agree with these points, respecting the rights of the Pitcairn people, but argue that any woman victim would feel more constrained from speaking out freely in such a small society as compared with, say, a big New Zealand city, which is the alternative trial venue.

This is a view worthy of consideration, but Pitcairners argue that they have an open and tolerant society, and that any community constraints would operate in a New Zealand courtroom as much as in a Pitcairn one. Certainly there would be no fewer Pitcairners in the gallery of a New Zealand court, with so many members of the community living in New Zealand. Which of the two courts would be the more intimidating is not a matter that we in this Parliament can easily judge. But one aspect of New Zealand trials that definitely would be a constraining factor on alleged victims and witnesses corning forward and speaking out is that New Zealand trials would be held in an international media hothouse.

If trials are held in New Zealand the whole community might be subject to a kind of media abuse. Every British and New Zealand tabloid will get into the act. It is of major concern to Pitcairners that they are being painted as some sort of weird people, with strange sexual practices. Members of the Pitcairn community are already suffering. For example, Pitcairn kids in New Zealand schools have been subject to taunting from fellow pupils that they are rapists.

One of the paths to justice that Pitcairners have promoted, and we heard about it at the select committee, is some form of truth and reconciliation process, which would not necessarily get rid of the need for trials. Truth and reconciliation systems take various forms. In South Africa the truth and reconciliation approach was complemented by trials for serious crimes. The Green Party is generally supportive of such restorative justice approaches. With the Pitcairn community both on the island and in New Zealand being so small and intimate, the combination of a healing, restorative justice approach, with appropriate trials, makes a lot of sense.

The impression I get from Pitcairn community members is that they want to deal with any historical issues of sex abuse. They want a community process whereby they can speak openly to each other about the issues, deal with them, and move forward as a community. To act against the community is the road to disaster, despite the good motivations behind this bill. The bill aims to help women alleged to be victims of sex abuse, but it will actually do the opposite. I have listened to several Pitcairn women, and it is quite clear that the resistance by them to this arrogantly imposed trial venue is seriously undermining any such trials. That is the reality that this Government is ignoring.

The Green Party wants justice for any sexually abused Pitcairn women. This bill will not achieve that. It will achieve the opposite. If we do not take the community with us, it is a road to disaster. We have seen that in Auckland recently on another quite different issue, that of the painted apple moth, where the very good aim of the Government to get rid of that pest is being undermined by not taking into account the wishes of the community and therefore not taking that community with it. We might not achieve the goal because of that.