New Zealand Law Society - Human rights lawyer vows to defend the defenceless

Human rights lawyer vows to defend the defenceless

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Golriz Ghahraman
Golriz Ghahraman

Being uprooted from her home country as a child to escape a repressive regime has shaped human rights lawyer and new MP Golriz Ghahraman’s career and outlook.

Ms Ghahraman left Iran in 1990 when she was nine, and her family were soon granted political asylum in New Zealand.

“I lived through the most repressive decade, the 1980s, that immediate post-revolutionary decade when there was a real shutdown of political and civil rights, and women were targeted through Islamic dress and all of that, but also political dissidents, or anyone who was perceived as a political dissident, were targeted and even religious and ethnic minorities.

“It was on such a mass scale that there were few people in Iran at the time who didn’t know someone who had disappeared or were thrown into prison. You couldn’t talk on the phone, it was very palpable; it wasn’t something you could escape, even as a child.”

Ms Ghahraman says her mother was politically active and disagreed with the regime.

Memories of 1980s-era Iran inspired her to take up law and work on human rights issues after being admitted as a barrister and solicitor in Auckland in 2005.

“You can’t ignore that these things are happening [human rights abuses] when you’ve seen oppression at first hand so there was a kind of urgency for me to go and give that back.”

The 36-year-old says that while the pre-revolutionary regime in Iran was very secular, it was still politically repressive. By coming to New Zealand her parents hoped to find a safe, open and democratic society to raise their daughter. “It was suddenly very free walking around the streets, and wearing what you want. And it was very green.”

The Auckland-based barrister sole will now focus on life in the Beehive after being elected a Green MP in the September election, the first refugee to enter Parliament.

She says that she will put her hand up to work on issues such as justice, human rights, and constitutional matters.

Populist rhetoric

But, while Ms Ghahraman says her family received a warm welcome from New Zealanders on arrival, that kind of reception is not offered to asylum seekers now.

Earlier this year she criticised then Prime Minister Bill English for saying, in defending comments he made in 2005 on asylum seekers from the Middle East, “You don’t need terrorists here and if one turns up at the border with a reference from Saddam Hussein or other terrorist credentials then they won’t be allowed in.”

“I think it would have been unthinkable when we came to have politicians talk about migrants or refugees in that way,” she says.

“I just don’t remember this kind of political football being played with people who are escaping war or other trauma.”

She says things began to change here after the terror attack on New York in 2001.

“That post-9/11 change when politicians began to talk of national security and race in terms of immigration as a political game was new and it was especially heart-breaking to see such a statement from Bill English and it was so inaccurate as well, it wasn’t even as if he was raising legitimate fears, he was suggesting Iraqis were all friends of Saddam Hussein and that refugees were terrorists. It was really that kind of populist rhetoric that we are hearing come out of Britain and the United States now.”

Torture and abuse

Entering the legal profession Ms Ghahraman wasn’t willing to shirk from tough tasks and working on cases of torture and human rights violations.

“I ended up going into criminal law because to me that is the most purely and the most frontline human rights area of law you can work in practice in in New Zealand; every day you are applying the Bill of Rights Act and you’re dealing with unlawful detention, searches and discrimination.

“I did that and then went to Oxford to specialise in human rights law and that led to working in the International Criminal Tribunals where you’re holding to account presidents and generals for mass human rights violations and international crimes. So, much of that was torture and the jurisprudence of those tribunals was really interesting because you are making law.

“In the Rwanda tribunal it was exciting to see, for example, gender-based violence for the first time in the context of war and mass atrocity being recognised as free-standing crimes. So, rape as an act of genocide was recognised for the first time and historically, all of that always happens in the context of war and genocide, it had never really had been treated as a key crime.

“But, because they were UN missions, you had to do a lot of outreach and non-legal work as well, so you had to go into the community and explain what we were doing, and that ended up bringing home, I think, a little bit the place of justice in terms of overcoming crime, and especially mass crime.”

She was until recently a UN consultant and has completed a code of conduct for Nigeria’s prosecution services. An intention of going to the West African country to teach human rights standards and advocacy skills has been put on hold.

Ms Ghahraman also worked on a family care case in Auckland involving family members seeking payment to help care for looking after a profoundly disabled relative full-time. The case has gone to both the Court of Appeal and the High Court and is now being taken over by another lawyer.


She has also been acting for two Rwandans living in New Zealand who are being sought for extradition. The allegations relate to the brutal tribal war in 1994.

“Things are very different in Rwanda now, it’s a very repressive military dictatorship, so genocide accusations especially against political dissidents are very common and that is happening around the world, and that may well be what is happening here.”

Ms Ghahraman has a Masters Degree in International Human Rights Law with Distinction from the University of Oxford.

She has worked as a prosecutor and defence lawyer at United Nations tribunals for Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia, on trials of former heads of state accused of committing international crimes and human rights violations.

She has built up expertise in legal challenges based on the Bill of Rights and Human Rights Acts. In 2015 she successfully challenged police conduct before the Supreme Court in Wilson v R [2015] NZSC 189.

Ms Ghahraman has also worked as a consultant for the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, designing and delivering training for lawyers on trial advocacy skills, human rights, and ethics.

Ms Ghahraman was ranked eighth on the Green Party list for the 23 September election, and was the last of the party’s candidates to secure election to Parliament, doing so after the special votes were counted.

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