11 Dec 2023

Sliding backwards on human rights

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 11 December 2023

New Zealand has recognised international human rights laws since signing a UN declaration 75 years ago, but that doesn't mean we're great at upholding them. 

Claire Charters is wearing glasses with long brown hair, she is sitting down and is looking upwards, as if she is listening.

Legal Scholar and Rongomau Taketake at the Human Rights Commission, Claire Charters. Photo: Provided

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

But is the agreement New Zealand signed up to at the UN so long ago still relevant?  

And are assumptions that we're doing just fine in this area starting to look a little smug?

Today on The Detail, Wilhelmina Shrimpton looks at the declaration, what it means for us, and the areas where we are falling down - as the new government plans to change the inner workings of the Human Rights Commission, and its coalition partner ACT declares it should be abolished all together. 

New Zealand's acting chief human rights commissioner, Saunoamaalií Dr Karanina Sumeo, says the declaration is "almost timeless because those fundamental rights are as relevant to us today, and probably will be relevant for humanity going forward". 

They've been influential in interpreting New Zealand law, she says. The document is a global road map that lays out 30 human rights including the right to freedom, the life free of discrimination, freedom of expression, gender equality, the right to access education, health and housing. 

It has formed the basis for our domestic laws, and a lot of them are encapsulated in our Bill of Rights. 

The 192 countries who've signed up to it are monitored to see how they're upholding the guidelines, and New Zealand is up for a review next year. 

"One of the roles of the Human Rights Commission has is we also have the ability to go to the UN, and provide our own view of how our government is doing, how our society is progressing - and we may have a different view to government. And that's completely all right." 

That doesn't mean the government can't muck with the commission, as we saw last week, with new Justice Minister Paul Goldsmith refusing to express confidence in commissioner Paul Hunt.

Dr Sumeo says the commission will present to the government based on the voices of our communities, and while we have invested in changed laws, "actually, some people's reality still hasn't changed". 

She says it's ironic that while we were the first country to give women the vote, our gender pay gap is still too big. 

The Declaration is not binding and each signing nation can pick and choose parts to uphold, so does it actually have enough teeth to make a difference? 

University of Auckland Professor Claire Charters specialises in indigenous peoples' rights in international and constitutional law - she says that while the declaration itself may not be binding, parts of it have been incorporated into binding "legal instruments."

"Certainly the treaties that followed the Declaration are binding and as a result New Zealand is subject to review very often ... in a bunch of different ways," she says. 

"Generally though New Zealand has used the Declaration as a basis for its negotiating positions on human rights on a regular basis, in its activities at the Human Rights Council." 

And the consequences for failing to adhere to the rules? 

Charters says "embarrassment" is one of the main levers, and New Zealand will lose international face. 

"That's certainly very powerful and it can undermine New Zealand's authority." 

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