Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Policing Terrorism in a Void: John Battersby Reviews New Zealand's Approach to a Major Security Concern in Light of Recent Study Group Findings

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Policing Terrorism in a Void: John Battersby Reviews New Zealand's Approach to a Major Security Concern in Light of Recent Study Group Findings

Article excerpt

Terrorism continues to be a major security concern around the world. New Zealand has avoided the worst to date, but it is probably only a matter of time. Unfortunately, New Zealand terrorist-related legislation is geared to historic events, not fit for the purpose of combatting modern terrorism and needs revision in order to keep up with the evolution of extremist violence. Until it is revised, police and intelligence services will have to counter terrorism in a void, thresholds under the Suppression of Terrorism Act are unlikely to be met and out-dated legislation will dictate conservative approaches to a dynamic problem.


In the course of the 20th century New Zealand has experienced a number of significant incidents, including multiple casualty murders and bombings which have taken life and damaged property. These incidents have come to be referred to by their specific geographic identity, for example 'the Trades Hall bombing' or 'the Aramoana massacre'. There have been occasional exceptions, but in the main New Zealanders remain reluctant to talk about terrorism in New Zealand-, they regard it as non-existent in the past and unlikely in the future. New Zealand's legislative architecture to deal with the problem is poorly designed--of the two specific pieces of legislation on terrorism, both exist as a reaction to some immediate external stimulus, and neither contains a genuine, well-thought out design to combat terrorism. (1) The definitions provided in this legislation are problematic. There is little public debate about terrorism--and where it has occurred it quickly becomes entwined with commentary on race relations, civil rights and other issues, blunting any political desire to remedy the situation. This has also left New Zealand law enforcement and intelligence agencies policing terrorism in a void, and at risk of uncertainty about what it is they are enforcing and how exactly to go about it.

In order to illustrate the issue, a cohort of frontline responders was chosen and their views canvassed on a range of terrorist related questions in February--March 2016. This cohort was drawn from police, military and related civilian organisations across New Zealand, whose responsibility it would be to deal with any terrorist event should one occur. (2) The value of this group is that they were drawn from those who are conscious that terrorism is a potential concern, and possessed of training in different aspects of serious criminal investigation, improvised explosive device search, identification and render safe, post-blast investigation and disaster-victim identification. Members were all operational in terms of New Zealand (and a number had overseas experience), dealing with (and investigating) violent and armed incidents, improvised explosive devices and forensic crime scene investigation.

The cohort comprised 37 people, who, when asked to define what they thought terrorism was, produced 37 different definitions. A number were similar, but even taken together they were not inclusive enough to cover the range of events that have comprised terrorist events elsewhere. That a range of different individuals had different opinions is in itself unexceptional, but that this range of individuals--specifically selected because they would be responsible for dealing with a terrorist event--had views that were so varied, confirms the problem: the current legislative void leaves a critical level of uncertainty at an operational level.

Widespread uncertainty

That this uncertainty extends beyond law enforcement agencies is I suggested by the recent Independent Review of Intelligence and Security in New Zealand, which identified a lack of clarity and currency in legislation governing these services. A consequence of this lack of clarity, the review found, was a conservatism in interpreting legislation on the part of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), which constrains the efficiency and adaptability of these organisations and risks new and emerging threats being missed. …

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