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should stay put on UN Indigenous declaration
Sara Hudson & Luke Malpass
11 April 2009
Recently Prime Minister
John Key was caught musing over whether New Zealand should
follow Australia’s lead and sign up to the UN Declaration on
the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Let us all hope
that he doesn’t. This inane piece of bureaucratic ‘rights
speak’ does few favours to anyone, and its paucity of
substance should make it laughable.
New Zealand is one of
three UN member countries to not sign up to the declaration,
the others being Canada and the United States. Until last week
Australia was also on this list, but Prime Minister Kevin
Rudd, having campaigned on an electoral platform replete with
the politics of symbolism, signed Australia up as promised.
One can assume that Key is only considering signing up to it
because Australia has just done so.
There is no need for
New Zealand to play the sheep and follow Australia. New
Zealand is already recognised as a world leader on Indigenous
rights. It is also notable that Canada, another country that
is internationally recognised as being very progressive on
Indigenous issues, has not felt the need to sign up to the
The declaration simply
repeats many of the rights given in the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights (UDHR) and extends them to Indigenous people.
This, in itself, is odd as the UDHR is supposedly universal,
i.e. extended to all people regardless of, not because of,
While UN declaration
can be construed as empty, meaningless symbolism –
aspirational rather than legally binding – there may be
serious repercussions in signing up to the declaration.
The previous government
rightly recognised that the UNDRIP gave Indigenous peoples
(Maori in New Zealand’s case) rights of veto and to
resources that other New Zealanders would not have.
government under John Howard was against signing up to the
UNDRIP as it felt that the declaration supported the creation
of separate states. Indeed, this is what Articles 3 and 4
allude to with the words: ‘Indigenous people have the right
of self-determination … to freely determine their political
status … [and to] the right to autonomy or self
One of the proponents
of the UN declaration is Australian Aboriginal activist Mick
Dodson. For more than a decade, Dodson has been involved in
crafting the text of the declaration with the aim of
re-establishing a separate Aboriginal body or
This is not something
that New Zealand should aspire to as Maori are already
adequately represented in Parliament with their own political
party and Maori seats. There is no need to have a separate
Parliament or state for Indigenous people. Maori are part of
the state, and to pretend they are not simply cheapens the
position they have fought to obtain over the past decades.
The overall tone of the
UNDRIP is one of separatism – which when taken to the
extreme is a form of apartheid. Further evidence of this is
found in Article 14.1, which states that: ‘Indigenous
peoples have the right to establish and control their
educational systems and institutions providing education in
their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural
methods of teaching and learning.’
In Australia, separate
education systems for Indigenous peoples have been a
spectacular failure. Aboriginal schools, where children are
not taught English until they are 10, have left a generation
of Aboriginal adolescents and young adults functionally
illiterate. Without the ability to speak English and to read
and write, Aborigines are excluded from mainstream society.
Perhaps this is what Dodson and other Aboriginal activists
want. Many are under the mistaken belief that by keeping
Indigenous people separate, they can somehow preserve
Aboriginal culture the way it has been for thousands of years.
The problem with this fantasy is that culture is not static,
and to pretend it can be preserved like some historical
artefact is absurd.
New Zealand is light
years ahead of Australia and does not need to go down this
road. Already, New Zealand has a treaty that is given due
consideration in many aspects of public policy and education.
The kinds of poverty and hopelessness seen in Aboriginal
settlements are barely comparable to the New Zealand Maori
There is not enough
space here to mention and point out the manifold
faults with the UN declaration and the detrimental effect it
would have on New Zealand. So we shall mention one article
that sums up the difficulties of the whole declaration.
The bizarre Article 6
reads ‘every indigenous individual has the right to a
nationality.’ What makes this ludicrous is that nations can
exist as one with the state (the nation-state), within states,
and across states. Individuals cannot choose their nationality
anymore than they can choose their family. You don’t get a
‘nation passport,’ you get one for a country, which while
sometimes a nation, is primarily an administrative zone. It
literally makes no sense.
Sadly, these are just
examples of the muddled thinking and separatist agendas
behinds the declaration. Signing up to a rights instrument
such as this would never be just a symbolic gesture in the
long term. It will have profound and unforeseen consequences.
John Key would be doing New Zealand a disservice by signing up
to the declaration.
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