UN declarations 'are obligations'

23:47, Apr 20 2010
Pita Sharples
UN DECLARATION: Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples at the United Nations forum on Indigenous Issues.

United Nations declarations are often a first step towards binding conventions, public law specialist Mai Chen said today, a day after the Government's affirmation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples, in his role as Maori Affairs Minister, made the announcement in New York yesterday.

ACT, which is also a government support partner, was upset it was not told the affirmation would be made, especially as it strongly disagrees with it.

The declaration sets out the rights of indigenous people, including ownership of land they have always occupied and protection of their language and culture.

It is non-binding but the previous government refused to support it over legal concerns.

The Government said it was simply "aspirational" and its support statement carried the caveat that New Zealand's laws would define the bounds of engagement with the declaration, and it would not impact on the Treaty of Waitangi.

But though Dr Sharples told the UN there were no caveats to New Zealand support, Prime Minister John Key played down the significance of the declaration, saying it would have no practical effect.

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira told Radio New Zealand this morning the declaration would be used by Maori to bolster claims before the Waitangi Tribunal and in courts.

ACT leader Rodney Hide said it set up separate rights for Maori.

"The fact that the Government has ratified this is a big deal because people will be looking to this UN declaration for guidance... The signing up to this I believe is a breach of National Party to their core philosophy and their voters."

Ms Chen told the broadcaster that the declaration did have meaning or the UN would not have spent 20 years pursuing it.

"Declarations are often a precursor to conventions... We're on the first step. I understand what everyone said about aspiration etc but I do worry the legal advice seems to have changed."

Some states signed up while making it clear they would not follow through, but that was not acting in good faith.

"New Zealand has to be a global citizen, we've always been a law taker not a law maker, we're too small and that is the evolving international consensus, the evolving international customary law on indigenous people we do need to have some cognisance of it."

Domestically the declaration would also have an impact.

"Declarations, never-the-less, are international obligations and they do form part of the backdrop, the context within which courts do interpret, but it's not just courts its the Waitangi Tribunal and its also direct negotiations."

Ms Chen said in 2007 the then Labour Government decided not to affirm the declaration based on Crown Law advice, over concerns the whole country would be caught in the scope of the declaration.

"They talked about the provisions on redress and compensation, again the entire country would appear to fall within the scope of the article, and the text generally takes no account of the fact that the land might be occupied or owned legitimately by others."

Ms Chen said the declaration would "shape" Maori expectations in negotiations.


Prime Minister John Key played down the significance of the declaration, saying it would have no practical effect, while the Maori Party claimed it as an international success.

Labour leader Phil Goff said the Government was saying one thing to the Maori Party and another to everyone else.

"I think Pita Sharples has been duped," he said.


"He's been told this is something that really does count, at the very time John Key is saying it's meaningless and counts for nothing."

Mr Goff said Mr Hide's attack was a serious matter for the Government.

"What we're seeing is the impossibility of balancing the interests of the ACT Party, the Maori Party and the National Party," he said.

"The National Party doesn't believe this makes any difference...they've done this to buy the support of the Maori Party and they did it in secret."