Why is New Zealand So Peaceful?
In an attempt to recruit more officers, the New Zealand police department has produced a series of commercials. In one, there is plenty of running and jumping but no criminals—unless you count the dog caught with a purse in its mouth. Unlike other countries, where people shy away from police work because of its dangers, in New Zealand it’s the boredom that scares them off. It’s a good problem to have.
In the Global Peace Index, which ranks countries on criteria such as crime, internal and external conflict, political instability and terrorism, New Zealand is beaten regularly only by Iceland. Why is New Zealand so peaceful?
The country’s location is the best place to start. The islands of New Zealand are very isolated—more than 2,000 kilometers from Australia. No one knew of their existence until Polynesian sailors arrived in the 1200’s. Unlike most countries, therefore, New Zealand doesn’t have near neighbours to fight with. It has been spared the conflicts that have regularly engulfed the peoples of Europe and Asia, who found it almost impossible to avoid war even if they wanted to.
The absence of external threats helped create a more open and tolerant society. Countries that have regularly been at war, for example France, Japan, Ethiopia, and the United States, have all produced gruff, conservative politicians determined to protect both their territory and the social order. Leaders of this sort were much rarer in New Zealand, so there were fewer people to oppose social changes such as increased rights for women. New Zealand was the first country to give the vote to women in national elections.
New Zealand has also done well at managing relations between Europeans and the country’s native population, the Maori. The Maori are the descendants of the Polynesians who lived on the islands before Europeans arrived under Captain Cook and took control. They suffered a series of disadvantages. British settlers took their lands. They told the Maori that they were racially inferior, exacting an enormous psychological toll. The Maori soon found themselves at the bottom of society. They still make up a disproportionate number of the country’s poor and imprisoned.
However, the Maori do far better than indigenous people in Australia or Native Americans in the United States. Maori have played significant roles in New Zealand politics, law, and business. The government has even made restitution for the European lands grabs of the 1800’s. In 1843, British and Maori leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi, which guaranteed Maori land rights. British settlers twisted the treaty in their own interests, but more recently the government has confirmed that the treaty still stands and set up a tribunal to address past wrongs.
Maori have also starred for the All Blacks, New Zealand’s rugby team. The All Blacks have been the best team in the world for most of the past century. The presence of Maori players and the haka (the intimidating Maori dance with which the All Blacks players, Maori or not, greet their opponents at the beginning of each game) have done much to earn the Maori national respect and affection. White New Zealanders even use the Maori term for Europeans who live on the islands—pakeha—to describe themselves.
Life isn’t perfect for the Maori, but it’s much better than it is for indigenous peoples almost anywhere else. The healthy relationship between the islands’ different races does much to curb crime and create a more harmonious society.
There are threats to New Zealand’s peace. Growing numbers of tourists—many drawn by the landscapes that formed the backdrop to the J. R. R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings movies—have made locals grumble. Increased Chinese demand for beef means more cows, but the methane they produce threatens the country’s ecology and water supply.
Nevertheless, New Zealand shows no signs of slipping from its place at the top of the Global Peace Index. The best place to see aggression in the country is on the rugby pitch. Even those who worry about the dangers of contact sports might see that as worth envying.