“We Can’t Rely on Majority Rule”: Meet NZ’s First Refugee MP


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“We Can’t Rely on Majority Rule”: Meet NZ’s First Refugee MP

Golriz Ghahraman on how escaping Iran's oppressive regime and defending war criminals in international courts has shaped her politics.

From fleeing Mashhad following the Iran-Iraq War, to arriving in Auckland with a few bags, to prosecuting war crimes internationally, it's been a long road to parliament for New Zealand's first refugee MP. Lawyer Golriz Ghahraman won her seat officially this weekend, with the final count of seats granting the Greens an additional spot in parliament. VICE spoke with Ghahraman about her childhood escape from Iran, what it's like defending those accused of war crimes, and what she's planning to achieve in parliament.


The concept of human rights has been central to 36-year-old Ghahraman's trajectory so far. They're the reason she was able to settle in New Zealand, the centre of her career as a lawyer, and form the crux of what she now wants to achieve now she's in parliament. As a lawyer, Ghahraman has worked in International Criminal Tribunals in Yugoslavia, Cambodia and Rwanda. She's worked on both sides of the fence—while in the Khmer Rouge Tribunal she was working as a prosecutor, but in Rwanda and Yugoslavia Ghahraman worked on the defence teams of people accused of appalling human rights abuses.

Despite coming from a strong advocacy background, she says she didn't find it difficult defending perpetrators.

"No, I believe so strongly in the process," Ghahraman says. "If you're going to convict someone, you have to know what those individuals were actually responsible for. We have to have a fair process, because how we treat the worst people in our society actually does define us. Having that fair process after a war has happened really will define the kind of society that comes out of it."

Her human rights background is key to why she decided to run for parliament at all—to pursue a human rights-based framework for policy and lawmaking. "Rights are universal, we achieve them by virtue of being human. We don't have to achieve the moral high ground or some other measure of success, it's a framework which protects the most vulnerable.


"We've got to a place where people are begging for charity for things like housing and education, which I didn't think was particularly Kiwi.

It's a broad answer, she acknowledges, "but I wanted that expertise and framework for my lawmakers. I'd kept saying this, and then I think it was actually my partner who said: maybe you need to be that candidate, and just go and do it yourself."

She considers it a lesson worth learning for women, who she believes can tend to see themselves more in supporting roles than out front.

In terms of specific policy areas, it's still early days—coalition negotiations haven't yet finalised, with both the Labour-Greens block and National vying for New Zealand First's attentions. But Ghahraman says she'd be looking to draw on her experience as a lawyer, working around the justice portfolios. In particular, she's hoping to work on youth justice reform—raising the age of criminal justice reform, and making it unlawful to hold children and adults in cells.

Her perspective for lawmaking and emphasis on human rights is deeply embedded in Ghahraman's own background as a refugee from Iran. She and her family fled Mashhad with a few small bags when she was just nine years old, she says.

Her parents had been critical of Iran's regime, with her mother speaking out publicly against the requirement to take religious exams. They didn't sell their house, pack their things, or even say goodbyes—for fear the authorities would find out they were leaving, she says.


"We never went back of course, because we can't—the fear of persecution remains."

"I think this is the thing people don't realise about refugees. We are not immigrants, we are not choosing to leave. No one wants to abandon their life in every way, never to return, to see their family. We are people who have to leave to escape persecution."

"We can't rely on majority rule democracy to protect our rights or interests. We need to participate."

The family left on the premise that they were taking a holiday in Fiji, with a stopover in Auckland. In Auckland, they left the plane and claimed asylum in New Zealand. "The thing I remember most is the incredible sense of fear about being returned to Iran once we got to Auckland airport," she says.

The experience was definitive, and has guided the work she's pursued since.

"Watching my parents risk absolutely everything, leave behind family, their culture and language, their professions just to escape religious and political persecution was defining act for me. It's meant I value human rights very highly and feel an urgent need to protect them. I know that fighting for rights, not just my own, and working to strengthen the institutions that protect our democracy has to be continuing—because I've seen the world without them."

Running as New Zealand' first refugee MP was about the policy gains she could achieve, but also about achieving more diverse representation in parliament, she says. "I've realised that my image and story will mean different things to different people."


"I've had to set aside my distaste for tokenism in the past few years in face of the greatest humanitarian crisis we've seen since WWII, which is emanating from my part of the world. Giving the refugee crisis a name and face has become a responsibility for those of us who have made it out."

The rise of racial-tension-fueled populism and the political division in places like the US and UK made it "urgent" for minorities and women to have a seat at the decision making table, she says.

"We can't rely on majority rule democracy to protect our rights or interests. We need to participate."

Segments of this interview also ran on The Oh Nine

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