Balancing national security and personal freedom in a low-risk society: The case of New Zealand
In the pre-dawn darkness of 17 October 2007, dozens of police from the Armed Offenders’ Squad and secret Special Tactics Group conducted simultaneous raids across New Zealand. They announced to a startled country that the raids were authorised by warrants issued under the Firearms Act and the Terrorism Suppression Act, and they had broken a network of terrorist training camps centred in the remote Urewera mountains in the centre of the North Island. The seventeen people arrested were not, however, members of an Al-Quaeda sleeper cell. They were all local political activists. Some had high public profiles. Many were Maori nationalists. The raids drew widespread public condemnation. They were decried as racist political harassment and evidence of the dangers inherent in the anti-terrorism legislation introduced at the behest of the US in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The high-level Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security had been briefed before the raids. However, in order to charge people under the Terrorism Suppression Act, the Police still required the approval of the Solicitor-General. When they sought that approval for the October 2007 raids, he said that on the basis of the evidence that had been gathered he could not assert to the charges, and he went on to describe the existing law as ‘unworkable’. The Government responded by giving the New Zealand Law Commission the task of examining whether existing law needed to be amended ‘to cover the conduct of individuals that creates risk to, or public concern about, the preservation of public safety and security and the means of obtaining evidence in relation to that conduct’. It also specified that the Commission must take account of the ‘the need to ensure an appropriate balance between the preservation of public safety and security and the maintenance of individual rights and freedoms’ This paper examines some dimensions of how this balance might be achieved. In doing so, it considers the nature and degree of a terrorist threat to New Zealand and situates this within a discussion of wider issues of negotiating risk in contemporary globalised world. It looks at the problems inherent in legislating against terrorism and the associated difficulties of enforcing that legislation. It sets this in the context of recent instances from New Zealand of how the interests of national security and individual freedoms have intersected in practice.