Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

This morning, the government announced its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Good. As a country which supposedly supports indigenous rights, and which thinks of itself as having got its relationship with Māori right, we should have been supporting it all along. Labour's 2007 refusal to support it was utterly shameful, and a black mark on that party's history.

Some think the Declaration is a racist document which grants special rights to people on the basis of their ethnicity. This is bullshit. The rights affirmed in the Declaration - rights to life, non-discrimination, self-determination, language, culture etc - are primarily reaffirmations of rights already affirmed in other international legal instruments such as the UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR. In most cases, these rights are clarified to give guidance on their implementation in the specific context of indigenous peoples, particularly in light of their past treatment. Even the "new" collective rights against genocide, dispossession, assimilation, forced integration and relocation fall into this category - they already exist in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In other words, what the Declaration affirms is the same damn rights everyone else has. And like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, its necessary precisely because those rights have been ignored and violated so often in the past.

Even the "controversial" Article 26, which affirms the right of indigenous peoples to retain their land, falls into this category, in that Article 17 of the UDHR affirms a right to own property and not to be arbitrarily deprived of it. But beyond that, this article is what the entire Treaty process has been about: coming to terms with the fact that we stole this country from its rightful owners, and doing what we can to make recompense for it. That has been a core principle of Treaty policy for 30 years now, and we should be upholding and promoting it on the international stage - not denying it.

(As an aside, anyone else find it ironic that ACT - the party of propertarians - thinks affirming the right of Māori to their property is wrong? I guess they really just are the party of Pakeha racists then...)

What should be controversial about the Declaration is not that we are supporting it, but the manner in which National has gone about it: flying a Minister to New York in the dead of night, making no mention of the fact in their media briefings, expunging it from the Minister's official diary (which, BTW, probably violates the Public Records Act, not to mention the spirit of the OIA. Someone should be prosecuted there). This extraordinary secrecy seems to have been aimed at one of the government's own support parties, who went nuclear in the House today and accused them of breaking their coalition agreement. It was disrespectful and dishonest.

Also dishonest are John Key's statements about what the declaration commits us to. As a small country with a mana-based foreign policy, we pride ourselves on our support for international law and on keeping our word. We make a point of not signing up to things unless we plan to implement them. But despite having his Minister of Māori Affairs announce our support for the Declaration, Key was today trying to argue that it was purely aspirational and that it meant nothing as it was non-binding. This is technically correct - its only a declaration, not a treaty, and even the latter have no effect unless implemented in New Zealand law - but at the same time it is grossly dishonest and two faced to say you support something in the morning and effectively denounce it that same afternoon.

Our government should stand by its public statements. If it did not intend to uphold the Declaration, then it should not have announced its support for it. It is that simple. Yes, such two-faced dishonesty is par for the course in the UN, as any student of UN human rights treaties would know. But we're meant to be better than that. Sinking to the level of dishonesty of China and Libya degrades us as a nation, and undermines the mana on which our entire foreign policy is based. And that is hugely damaging to our country in the long run.