On 15 March 2019, Masjid an-Nur and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch were attacked by a right-wing terrorist while worshippers were at prayer. Fifty-one people were killed and another 40 people suffered gunshot injuries.
The Government response to the terrorist attack included two significant announcements:
- An announcement on 21 March 2019 that military style semi-automatics and assault rifles would be banned immediately along with high-capacity magazines. A buy-back scheme would be implemented.
- An announcement on 25 March 2019 that a Royal Commission of Inquiry would be established to investigate the events leading up to the terrorist attack.
On 26 March 2020, an Australian man pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 counts of attempted murder and one terrorism charge relating to the terrorist attack. On 27 August 2020, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. On 1 September 2020, the Prime Minister of New Zealand designated this man as a terrorist entity under Section 22 of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. A designation under New Zealand legislation freezes the assets of terrorist entities and makes it a criminal offence for anyone else to participate in or support the activities of the designated terrorist entity. We have chosen not to name the terrorist in this document and instead generally refer to him as the “individual”.
Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019
The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Terrorist Attack on Christchurch Mosques on 15 March 2019 (the Royal Commission) was established to investigate the individual’s activities before 15 March 2019 and to look into:
- what Public sector agencies knew about the individual, before 15 March 2019;
- what Public sector agencies did (if anything) with that knowledge;
- whether there was anything else Public sector agencies could have done to prevent the terrorist attack; and
- what else Public sector agencies should do to prevent such terrorist attacks in the future.
The Royal Commission must make findings on:
- whether Public sector agencies had information that could have alerted them to the terrorist attack;
- how Public sector agencies worked with each other and shared information;
- whether Public agencies failed to anticipate the attack because of an inappropriate focus of counter-terrorism resources;
- whether Public sector agencies failed to meet required standards or were in some way at fault; and
- any other matters necessary to provide a complete report.
The Royal Commission must make recommendations on:
- what improvements should be made to the way Public sector agencies gather, share and analyse information;
- how Public sector agency systems or operational practices could be improved to prevent future terrorist attacks; and
- any other matters to provide a complete report.
These recommendations could include changes to legislation (except firearms legislation), policy, rules, standards or practices.
Limits to the inquiry
The Royal Commission is not allowed to inquire into:
- the guilt or innocence of any individual who has been, or may be, charged with offences in relation to the terrorist attack;
- amendments to firearms legislation;
- activities of organisations outside of the Public sector, such as media platforms; and
- how Public sector agencies responded to the terrorist attack once it had begun.
The Royal Commission started on 10 April 2019 and began receiving evidence on 13 May 2019. Our inquiry had several overlapping phases from establishment to engagement with communities, research and evidence gathering, holding evidential interviews, analysis and deliberations, and report development and presentation.
The original reporting date of 10 December 2019 was subsequently extended on two occasions until the final reporting date of 26 November 2020. The extensions were necessary because of:
- the sheer volume of material we had to assess; and
- the disruption resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.
We presented our report to the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy. The Governor-General handed the report to the government for their consideration.
Purpose of this document and our process
A vital part of the Royal Commission’s process was to engage with whānau of the 51 shuhada (those people who died as martyrs as a result of the terrorist attack), and the survivors and witnesses of the terrorist attack and their whānau. They have been at the heart of our inquiry and our thinking. This Royal Commission of Inquiry was established because of the tragedy of 15 March 2019 that caused immense grief, hurt and loss.
This group of people could collectively be referred to as victims, which for some validates the harm they have experienced. Others, however, dislike the term victim. There are also mixed views about survivor. Some of those affected prefer not to be labelled at all. For this document, we use the description, “affected whānau, survivors and witnesses” to refer to whānau of the 51 shuhada, and the survivors and witnesses of the terrorist attack and their whānau.
The primary focus of this document is to record comprehensively what we heard from affected whānau, survivors and witnesses. Given the significance of what we heard, we felt it important to acknowledge the stories, experiences and evidence of those most affected by the terrorist attack.
We wanted to prioritise meeting with affected whānau, survivors and witnesses, if they wanted to meet. We met with wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles and cousins of the shuhada. Likewise, we met with those who were injured (physically and/or mentally), survivors and witnesses of the terrorist attack and their whānau.
When we started our process we did not have a list of all of affected whānau, survivors and witnesses. Relevant Public sector agencies and community organisations were unable to share what names or contact information they had with us for privacy reasons. To try to reach as many affected whānau, survivors and witnesses as possible, we openly invited those most affected by the attack to meet with us on their terms.
We asked local Imams to let people know that they could meet with us if they chose to. To ensure that our invitation made it to as many people as possible, we also reached out to other groups/organisations to help raise awareness of the opportunity to meet with us, including the Christchurch Muslim Liaison Group, our Muslim Community Reference Group members, Victim Support, and the Ministry of Social Development. We extended this invitation on our website, in media releases, to people during meetings, on the phone to 0800-line callers and provided copies of our invitation to place on noticeboards at the masjidain.
We were also supported by community-based lawyers JustCommunity, and the community-based advisory service Navigate Your Way Trust, who helped us meet with affected whānau, survivors and witnesses in both small and larger group settings. The support of these organisations provided us with the opportunity to hear from some people we may not have otherwise been able to reach. We are grateful for their support and assistance.
We met with people on their own terms at times and, wherever possible, places that were most suitable for them. Some people invited us into their homes, others were more comfortable meeting in a community centre, local café, or hotel or library meeting rooms. All meetings were held in private and we took care to pay particular respect to cultural and religious practices and be mindful of the trauma that many people had suffered.
Affected whānau, survivors and witnesses we met with came from more than 22 different countries and speak over 50 different languages. All of this had to be taken into account when reaching out to them.
Some affected whānau, survivors and witnesses were ready and willing to meet right away. Others needed more time. We wanted to respect affected whānau, survivors and witnesses who were grieving. We also wanted to appropriately observe Muslim events and practices, including the 'Iddah grieving period, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Dhul Hajjah, Eid al-Adha, Hajj pilgrimage and Muharram.
We were learning as we went through this process and did not always get things right. We appreciated receiving feedback when things did not work well, such as not providing an interpreter when it would have enabled someone to engage with us more easily, or that the way a room was set up indicated an imbalance of power. Such feedback helped us to adapt our approach to ensure people felt comfortable engaging with us, and that they were in a safe space in which their voice would be heard. We hope that our intention to engage in an appropriate and safe way was clear, even when we did not get it right.
There were a number of things we wanted to achieve in meeting with those most deeply affected by the terrorist attack of 15 March 2019. We wanted people to have an opportunity to share their stories, their evidence, in their own words. We wanted to hear their view on anything that happened in the lead up to the terrorist attack and/or thoughts they had to support our inquiry into how Public sector agencies can prevent such an attack from happening again.
Our overall approach was that we were there to listen. Affected whānau, survivors and witnesses led the meetings. People shared stories about the loved ones they had lost, or about their own experiences of the terrorist attack. They asked about the Royal Commission, what it was, how it worked, and what authority it had to make change. Some people we met with were wary of criticising New Zealand Police, the government or Public sector agencies, in part from their experiences with authorities in other countries, and concerns that any criticism could lead to negative outcomes for them. Some felt they were not getting the support they needed from Public sector agencies, so were turning to us for help, for example in finding work or seeking assistance for whānau members to come to New Zealand to provide them with support. Supporting people with such challenges was outside our mandate, but where possible and appropriate we referred people to relevant Public sector agencies or organisations that may be able to assist them in such matters.
Some of what we heard in these meetings was outside the scope of our Terms of Reference. However, our Terms of Reference also require us to provide reassurance to the New Zealand public. We therefore think it is important to record the breadth of issues that were significant to affected whānau, survivors and witnesses we met with. This document sets out a summary of a range of experiences and issues along with potential solutions proposed by affected whānau, survivors and witnesses who engaged with us.
Our meetings with affected whānau, survivors and witnesses were held in private. That meant the discussions were confidential between those we met with and the Royal Commission. We heard heart-felt thanks, praise and gratitude for the support that has been shown to these affected whānau, survivors and witnesses. But we also felt their deep grief, trauma and distress. We set out these stories and experiences here with the intention of giving them the respect they deserve. We have done so in a general way, more often than not without quoting specific individuals. To protect people’s privacy, all quotes have been anonymised. Where there are quotes, they have generally come from a submission that was made to us on behalf of a large group of affected whānau, survivors and witnesses, and represents a range of experiences and views. We recognise, however, that their quotes may not represent all affected whānau, survivors and witnesses.
We acknowledge the openness and willingness of affected whānau, survivors and witnesses to talk to us, particularly during a period of such grief. These conversations and submissions have strengthened our process hugely by ensuring we kept the 51 shuhada at the heart of our work, and as such have made our report richer.
We have drawn on this material, along with information from meetings, interviews and research, in producing the Royal Commission’s report on the terrorist attack on the Masjid an-Nur and Linwood Islamic Centre on 15 March 2019.
What we asked affected whānau, survivors and witnesses
We did not have prescribed questions for affected whānau, survivors and witnesses, rather we provided an opportunity for affected whānau, survivors and witnesses to share stories and evidence in their own words and in their own time. We asked questions to prompt discussion, if needed. Questions were tailored to each person’s situation and included questions about:
- the impact of the terrorist attack on themselves, whānau and friends;
- their lives in New Zealand before the terrorist attack, including:
- what their overall experience of living in New Zealand has been; and
- whether they ever felt unsafe before 15 March 2019, and whether they asked for help or raised concerns;
- what the government could have done in the past to help them feel safer, and help other people be more accepting; and
- what the government could do (or do better) in the future to make New Zealand safe for everyone and prevent future terrorist attacks.