Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called on political leaders to “remember our shared common humanity” in addressing the Israel-Hamas war, though stopped short of calling for a ceasefire at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Monday.
“The only way to find long-term peaceful resolution to difficult and complex conflicts is if you find a way to end the violence and grief in order to give yourself the space to then have those conversations,” Ardern said.
Ardern, who holds two fellowships at the Harvard Kennedy School and another at Harvard Law School, put herself back in the shoes of a world leader navigating the complexities of the conflict in the Middle East.
“How would I have reacted as a leader? I simply would have reminded everyone to remember our shared common humanity,” Ardern said.
“It’s very hard to find peaceful resolution at the midst of violence and grief,” she added.
Elected to New Zealand’s top post at the age of 37, Ardern quickly became a progressive icon. One of the defining moments of her tenure came as she led New Zealand through the aftermath of one of the deadliest mass shootings in its history, in which a white supremacist killed 51 Muslim worshippers in two Christchurch mosques using an AR-15.
Just 10 days after the deadly attack, Ardern and her coalition government took action, banning AR-15s and later assault rifles and military-style semiautomatic weapons broadly — a policy path that has yet to be implemented at the federal level in the United States.
“It cannot stand, our laws will change,” Ardern said of her message to New Zealanders following the attack.
“We wouldn’t just ban them. We would buy them back,” she added. “And then we would destroy them.”
New Zealand, a nation with farming at its roots, faced a similar dilemma to that posed to the United States when it explored restrictions for all firearms, including hunting weapons.
“How do we really hone in on those weapons, which are designed to take human life?” Ardern said. “And how do we deal with a crossover between that and those individuals who are just taking part in duck shooting?”
Ardern, who shot possums as a child in her family orchard, drew on her personal experience with firearms when approaching the issue with ordinary New Zealanders. Unsure of how to address the issue, she met with a group of local police and asked them about restricting the number of weapons a person may legally possess.
“Should I reduce it down, and if I should, what level?” Ardern said, recounting the interaction. “They conferred amongst themselves and had a brief conversation and then said five is enough — so that was it, I walked away and set a limit at five.”
Ardern also discussed her administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. She said her government was “constantly trying to think about the human experience,” when making decisions around pandemic restrictions, especially around nightlife. She noted that, unlike other countries, New Zealand did not pass curfews during the pandemic.
“So now I consider myself youth-adjacent. I felt like I was at least young enough to remember pubs and clubs, even if I hadn’t been to one in a decade,” she said. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure Covid doesn’t knock off at 10 p.m.”
Ardern, one of the youngest female world leaders, quickly rose to international prominence but said she constantly found herself falling victim to imposter syndrome. She opened up to students about this struggle.
“People often ask me, ‘How did you overcome that?’” she said. “Never did. I absolutely never did. Yet, I was prime minister for five years in spite of that.”
Ardern encouraged students to break out of the mindset of having a “confidence gap,” advising them to “imagine me in your minds.”
“You never know what you are capable of until you are doing it,” Ardern said. “If you constantly anticipate that you do not have the skills or the capability to take on a role, you have no idea of what opportunities you will be missing out on — but worse, what others will lose out on because you are holding yourself back.”