Monday, 22 Oct 2007

NZ denies full justice to Maori

The Press | Thursday, 11 October 2007
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Sunday Star-Times

SENSE OF INJUSTICE: A Maori sovereignty flag flies on One Tree Hill in Auckland.

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New Zealand's refusal to sign a UN declaration on indigenous rights is unenlightened and fails to address past injustice, writes Rawiri Taonui.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passed recently by an overwhelming 143-to- four majority of the United Nations General Assembly, is a far-reaching statement on human rights.

The document's 45 articles set out the rights of 400 million indigenous peoples in 70 countries to their self- determination, cultures, traditions, languages, institutions, worldviews and life ways.

It calls on states to prevent and redress theft of land and natural resources and forced assimilation, while establishing minimal standards to eliminate the racism, discrimination, marginalisation and exploitation that inhibits their development.

Indigenous communities constitute a special category of peoples descending from the earliest occupants of a region who suffered under colonisation. Some, as in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States, exist as minorities. Others have achieved sovereign independence.

They are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in the world today. Almost all have endured loss of sovereignty and land and forced assimilation. Others experienced forced mass migration. Many have been wiped out. Some remain in danger of extinction. Governments routinely violate their rights.

Indigenes have consistently resisted oppression. Their modern advocacy has its origins when colonised people, witnessing the immense destruction and violence of World War 1 and World War 2, began questioning notions that European civilisations were superior. A wave of anti-colonial and nationalist movements sprang up around the world.

Gains were made, first under the UN International Labour Organisation and then when the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples was formed in 1982. Maori were involved at the outset. The group produced a first draft of the declaration in 1993. The now-defunct UN Commission on Human Rights redrafted that annually. A reconstituted and more effective United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a formal draft in 2006. Last month's decision affirmed that process.

One of the reasons the declaration took so long to formulate was that Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States (collectively called Canzus) have consistently impeded its progress, something the indigenous community has widely condemned.

Canzus claims to be acting in the interests of indigenous peoples, yet none of the four properly consulted the indigenous people they claimed to represent. New Zealand facilitated just six meetings over 20 years and then only with interested individuals.

Canzus also argued the declaration was fundamentally incompatible with democracy. This ignores that current constitutional arrangements were originally imposed, and further, that while equality under democracy is an admirable goal, the reality is that historically monocultural democracies in pluri-cultural contexts have always disadvantaged minorities and favoured dominant groups.

New Zealand said the declaration created special rights for Maori in a manner unfair to other citizens and was inconsistent with the principles and protection afforded to Maori under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Crown forgets that it created different classes when it treated Maori as second-class citizens and cleared them off their lands and suppressed their culture and language. Maori were not accepted as equal. They were an underclass.

And, while the treaty does afford Maori some protection, for the most part the Crown unilaterally decides treaty policy.

The declaration provides balance by delineating a baseline of rights for all indigenous peoples. This is one root of the opposition from New Zealand, Canada, Australia and the United States. These countries have baggage. They do not want further examination of colonial or current injustices.

Canzus also objected to articles affirming indigenous rights to political self-determination, economic development of original traditional lands and natural resources, and free, prior, and informed consent before those rights are impeded upon as separatist and threatening to lands now legally owned by others.

Never mind that this does not acknowledge that most non- Maori, lawfully owned land derives from an initial theft, and that the four governments fail to appreciate that empowering indigenous peoples to help themselves is the best way forward. The stance was duplicitous because the declaration clearly recognises that much lost land will never be returned.

Herein lies a second rub. Where possible, the declaration urges land be returned, but where that is not feasible it recommends compensation at full value. The real issue is that New Zealand has forced Maori to accept very much less, usually 1 per cent to 2% of losses. The Crown does not want to admit that our restitutive processes and standards are sometimes lacking.

The declaration is helpful, because it reminds us to focus on full justice lest we encourage a greater sense of injustice that will burden future generations.

There are implications for the future. The declaration allows claims on loss of identity and culture. At some time in the future, it will lead to the forming of a long-overdue international tribunal on indigenous claims.

This will have implications for how we interpret and apply the treaty. The document will remain, but in future we will be more honest about the past. The gang of four governments will cease to dictate the false truth that colonisation occurred by free and intelligent cession of sovereignty. Indigenes will be equal, Maori more self- determining and greater compensation due.

The declaration is a stepping stone to justice. The language encourages the reconciliation of painful histories setting free oppressors and the oppressed. Indigenous communities have pressed hard for the declaration because it will support them to move forward in accordance with their aspirations.

The international community now recognises that special measures are required to protect them.

New Zealand has been widely condemned for its stance. This comes on the back of two UN reports condemning our race relations record with Maori. Canzus is a backward coalition of the unenlightened. It is time we joined the rest of the world.

  • Rawiri Taonui is the head of the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury.

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