NZ indigenous rights stance 'shameful' - Maori Party

Last updated 00:00 14/09/2007

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The government's opposition to the United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous people will anger tangata whenua, the Maori Party says.

The UN General Assembly passed a sweeping declaration of rights for indigenous peoples today despite claims from New Zealand that it gave excessive property and legal powers.

Four countries - the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - voted against the nonbinding declaration, but it went through overwhelmingly with 143 votes in favor and 11 abstentions. Not all countries in the 192-member Assembly took part in the vote.

Under negotiation for 20 years, the document says that indigenous people, whose number has been put at 270 million worldwide as understood by the declaration, "have the right to self-determination."

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples slammed the government's stance.

"This week in question-time, the government described the declaration as 'incompatible' with Government policy" said Dr Sharples. "What are Maori to make of that - that the individual and collective rights of indigenous people do not fit with Labour policy?"

"It is shameful to the extreme, that New Zealand voted against the outlawing of discrimination against indigenous people; voted against justice, dignity and fundamental freedoms for all" said Dr Sharples.

"This day will be a red-letter day for indigenous peoples of Aotearoa and the globe," said co leader Tariana Turia.

"How can this government oppose a declaration which promotes and protects what is meant to be merely a minimum standard of human rights for Maori?" asked Mrs Turia.

"How can this government vote against such a text - despite the fact they have been instrumental in weakening its provisions over the last few years? They've held indigenous peoples to ransom all over the world, and haven't even had the decency to support the watered down version at the final vote. It is very clear they still think of Indigenous Peoples as sub-human with only sub-human rights," said Mrs Turia.

The Green Party said the Government had no mandate from Maori to oppose the declaration.

"It is hard to see what the Government thinks it is achieving by such action," Maori affairs spokeswoman Metiria Turei said.

"It tarnishes the image of this country in international forums and damages any trust that tangata whenua might have in the Government's commitment to biculturalism at home."

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan and Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres said they were sorry the Government felt unable to support the declaration "over a few outstanding issues".

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"In extended negotiations leading up to the adoption of the declaration, the Government has supported the vast majority of the text," they said.

"The Commission's hope had been that the few outstanding matters could be resolved before the vote was taken."

Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia told Radio New Zealand that New Zealand was far ahead of other countries in terms of promoting the rights of indigenous people and the Waitangi Tribunal already provided an appropriate system of redress.

One of its most controversial articles in the UN declaration states that "indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired."

That could potentially put in question most of the land ownership in countries, such as those that opposed the declaration, whose present population is largely descended from settlers who took over territory from previous inhabitants.

A balancing clause inserted at a late stage in the text says nothing in it can authorize or encourage "any action which would dismember or impair, totally or in part, the territorial integrity or political unity" of states.

POLITICAL FOOTBALL

That was not good enough for the four objectors, notably Canada, where the issue has become a political football. Many of Canada's 1 million aboriginal and Inuit people live in overcrowded, unsanitary housing and suffer high rates of unemployment, substance abuse and suicide.

"The provisions in the declaration on lands, territories and resources are overly broad, unclear, and capable of a wide variety of interpretations," Canada's UN Ambassador John McNee told the General Assembly.

That stance was attacked by Canada's left-leaning opposition New Democrats. "It's very disappointing. I think it's cowardly and very un-Canadian ... we pride ourselves on being advocates for human rights," legislator Jean Crowder told Reuters.

US delegate Robert Hagen said the UN Human Rights Council, which prepared the text, had not sought consensus. "This declaration was adopted ... in a splintered vote. This process was unfortunate and extraordinary," he said.

Aside from land ownership issues, critics also assailed provisions on indigenous peoples' intellectual property, right to be consulted on laws affecting them and right to exempt their land from military activities. But supporters of the declaration said it gave long overdue recognition to indigenous peoples.

"This declaration is the least that could be approved to give us all instruments recognizing the existence of indigenous people," Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca, himself indigenous, told the General Assembly.

"It is an important step for indigenous people to do away with discrimination, to strengthen the identity, to recognize our right to land and natural resources, to be consulted, to participate in decisions," the minister said.

Most US allies, including Britain and Japan, also voted for the declaration, saying last minute amendments had made it acceptable, given that it did not have the force of international law.

- with Reuters and NZPA

- Stuff

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