Was New Zealand right to endorse the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People?
OPINION: Recognising blah blah blah, affirming waffle waffle waffle. As a contribution to the human rights canon, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples leaves something to be desired.
It reads like a 48-page wish list assembled by a committee, which is exactly what it is – a committee which debated the merits of additional clauses, full stops and commas for 22 years. Drafting began in 1985, but the final wording was not approved by the United Nations General Assembly until 2007.
However, its drawn-out conception is not a reason to oppose it. Nor is its verbosity. The declaration is a flawed document – an assemblage of truisms and platitudes that imposes no obligations on signatories but contains fishhooks for nations that try to honour it.
It is actually to the last government's credit that it declined to endorse a document it knew it could not implement. Amid the verbiage are a handful of articles that confer rights on indigenous peoples that are denied to other citizens. They include the right to veto government decisions and reclaim ownership of traditional lands – a right that, in New Zealand's case, could be interpreted as covering the entire country.
New Zealand does not need to pay lip service to unworkable statements to demonstrate its good intent.
As Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta told Parliament yesterday, this country has a record that is second to none when it comes to recognising the rights of indigenous people. The record is not perfect and there are some historic injustices that can never be put right, but New Zealand has no need to seek the approval of Somalia or Sudan, China or Indonesia when it comes to dealing with minority groups. All are countries which have endorsed the declaration but in which minority groups continue to be oppressed.
However, there is value in restating the special status of Maori as New Zealand's indigenous people, acknowledging the importance of Maori culture, affirming the Treaty of Waitangi's place as New Zealand's founding document and acknowledging the historic injustices suffered by Maori.
The negotiations between the Maori Party and National have enabled the Government to do so in a way which does not expose it to accusations of bad faith.
New Zealand's declaration of support explicitly reaffirms the legal and constitutional frameworks that underpin the legal system and notes that those frameworks define the bounds of New Zealand's engagement with the UN declaration. In other words, New Zealand law takes precedence over the declaration.
A momentous occasion as the Maori Party has suggested? Perhaps not, but a welcome opportunity to remove a source of friction between Maori and the Government and to put New Zealand back in the international mainstream. Of the four countries that initially opposed the declaration – New Zealand, the United States, Australia and Canada – only the US now stands outside the declaration. Australia changed its position last year and Canada has said it will do so.
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