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Luke Malpass

NZ should stay put on UN Indigenous declaration

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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 UNDRIP declaration.

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, indigeniety.

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.

The Australian 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 government.’

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 ‘Parliament.’

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 experience.

There is not enough space here to mention and point out the m

anifold 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.