70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

ANDREW LITTLE - SPEECH TO AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL EVENT TO MARK THE 70TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS ON WORLD HUMAN RIGHTS DAY, PARLIAMENT, WELLINGTON

Welcome and Acknowledgements

Tena koutou katoa

Te whare e tu nei

Tena koe

Te Papa e takoto nei

Tena koe

Nau mai haere mai

Ka tangi te titi

Ka tangi te kaka

Ka tangi hoki ahau

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa

Kia ora koutou and a warm welcome to the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

I want to acknowledge all in attendance here, in this room, who work to ensure human rights are championed in New Zealand and throughout the world. 

In particular I would like to acknowledge:

  • My Parliamentary colleagues Hon Stuart Nash, Hon Jenny Salesa, Hon Willie Jackson, Associate Minister of Justice Hon Aupito William Sio, Marama Davidson, Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Melissa Lee, Jenny Marcroft and Louisa Wall;
  • Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft;
  • Glen Barclay, National Secretary, Public Service Association;
  • Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Human Rights Commission;
  • Mike Tana, Mayor of Porirua; 
  • All of the heads of Non-Governmental Organisations in attendance, thank you for the work you do to make New Zealand a better place;
  • Rachel O’Connor, Red Cross;
  • Ced Simpson, Human Rights Foundation;
  • Joanna Spratt, Oxfam;
  • Lachlan Keating, Deaf Aotearoa;
  • Ang Jury, Women’s Refuge;
  • Amnesty International both for the vital role that you play in holding governments to account, and for arranging this event. A warm welcome tonight to Executive Director Tony Blackett, members of the Amnesty International board, staff and volunteers.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

I am honoured to be here with you all to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Declaration. My personal commitment to the Declaration and its principles goes back to the start of my working life.  Early in my life as a lawyer working for a trade union, I visited the UN Headquarters in New York and got for myself a poster-sized version of the Declaration.  It has adorned the walls of a number of offices, flats and studies since then.  It presently graces my ministerial office wall, sitting sentinel-like over meetings with justice officials, officials from the Office of Treaty Settlements and staff of the spy agencies.

There is a reference in the preamble to the Declaration about “every individual and every organ of society keeping [the] Declaration constantly in mind”.  I am happy to say I strive to fulfil this part of the Declaration.

I want to take this opportunity to reaffirm New Zealand’s commitment to human rights.

The acceptance of the Declaration in 1948 was a turning point in the history of human rights. It followed the destruction and privation of the Second World War.

It was forged in the shadow of what the Declaration itself described as “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”.

It reflected a remarkable time in the history of humanity when citizens and their leaders around the world realised that the combined power of the nation state along with social and economic structures could conspire to defeat basic rights of dignity and equality, and erode those freedoms that define us as human – freedoms of expression and association; freedoms from fear and want.  For the first time, a document set out human rights to be universally protected and upheld.

The Declaration has been the precursor to more than 80 international treaties since.  New Zealand is a party to most of these.  For example, when we implemented our Bill of Rights Act in 1990, we became party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty inspired by the Declaration. 

A small but influential New Zealand

We can proudly say that New Zealand has played a significant role in the drafting of the Declaration.  The Government at the time held the courageous position that, while all the articles of the Declaration were equally significant, there was a specific responsibility on states to promote economic, social and cultural rights because civil and political rights were incomplete without them. 

Today, the New Zealand Government remains firmly committed to making no distinction between the various categories of rights, as all are of equal importance. Personal freedom is incomplete without progressive human rights, and this sentiment continues to be held strongly in New Zealand.

Current Government priorities

While the Declaration sets out fundamental rights and freedoms for all people, our Government acknowledges there is plenty more for us to do in New Zealand.  And we might want to think about whether the Declaration, unchanged after 70 years, reflects our understanding of humanity and human rights today. For example, I’m not sure in this day and age we all regard ourselves as wanting to act in a spirit of brotherhood, as Article I calls on us to do. The more so when you think about what the sisterhood has achieved and continues to strive for!

Poverty and hardship are a source of indignity and a denial of freedom.  A society is only as healthy as its members and the government is prioritising improving the wellbeing of New Zealanders and their families.  For that reason, next year New Zealand will be the first nation in the world to deliver a Wellbeing Budget reporting our annual progress against a range of measures that highlight the health and wellbeing of our people, our environment and our communities.  

We want New Zealand to be the best place in the world to bring up a child, by committing to substantially reducing child poverty and improving children’s wellbeing. Our Child Poverty Reduction Bill will allow us to be held to account, safeguarding this goal.

At the heart of human rights sits the dignity of the individual.  The ultimate expression of the individual is the realisation of one’s full potential.  That’s why the elimination of discrimination is so essential.  And where that discrimination and denial of dignity has been structural and systemic, we have to work harder to repel it.  This is why we have established a new Māori/Crown relations portfolio, Te Arawhiti, meaning "the bridge” between Māori and the Crown to help foster healthier relationships and improve our engagement. 

Our inquiry into the historic abuse of children in state care and religious organisations will allow us to acknowledge the harm caused when well-intended actions by the State and faith-based organisations lack compassion and a basic understanding of people who are vulnerable and powerless, and leave them traumatised and scarred for life. This will enable us to learn lessons for the future, and to better protect our citizens. 

We are determined to ensure that every New Zealander has a safe, warm, dry home. We have introduced the Healthy Homes Guarantee, requiring landlords to properly insulate, heat and ventilate rental properties.  We are also supporting people to stay warm through innovative Winter Energy Payments, to help New Zealanders with the cost of winter energy bills.

Personally, I am spending a lot of time looking to address and reform the issues that our broken criminal justice system presents. We need transformational change, including the reduction of the prison population. We need fairer treatment and better support for victims of crime. We cannot expect to change those who have offended against the community, including those who have offended seriously, if we do not hold on to the belief that the change we need to see in many of them is a restoration of their humanity and dignity.  For the gross over-representation of Māori in our prison system, we cannot expect to turn this around if we do not fulfil the promise of the Treaty by restoring mana and embracing the two origins of our nation. 

Our Government has big goals, and we are dedicated to improving our human rights, and ensuring fair treatment for all New Zealanders. 

The Declaration in today’s world

As we celebrate this important milestone of this important international treasure, let’s also reflect on what it truly means in today’s world.

Its words might be 70 years old.  But they are as powerful and relevant today as ever:

...the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

As we have come to a more enlightened understanding over the last 70 years of sexuality, gender identity and true diversity and equality, let’s make sure the Declaration confirms the right of every person to be received by the world in the way each person chooses to present themselves.  

And when many villages, towns and communities are right now facing the direct and harsh consequences of climate change, let’s make sure the Declaration confirms that an inalienable right is the right to live on the land to which you were born without losing that land and the identity that goes with it, to the preventable consequences of ploughing ever more carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Conclusion

Domestic peace and security can be achieved only if states treat their citizens with dignity.  The rights and freedoms in the Declaration ensure that states can be held accountable on the international stage for the treatment of their people.

I would like to thank all civil society actors here, for your untiring work in holding governments to account.  We look forward to working with you to implement transformative change for all New Zealanders.  I am pleased to be here tonight to celebrate 70 years of the Declaration, the foundation of international human rights standards.

Nō reira                                                                

Tēnā koutou                                                      

Tēnā koutou                                                      

Tēnā tatou katoa.