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Peter Wilson: UN Declaration Surrounded By Confusion

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson

Surprising misconceptions and startling contradictions surround the Government's affirmation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A Ngapuhi academic has written to the UN asking for the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi to be returned to his hapu. He says he wants to find out whether the declaration has any teeth.

He need not have bothered. It doesn't have any teeth. It is non-binding, it doesn't have any legal status.

Prime Minister John Key describes it as "aspirational" and "symbolic". It will have "no practical effect".

The Maori Party sees it as a triumph with profound implications. Hone Harawira's clenched fist salute to it in Parliament said it all. Its articles contain what he has always wanted.

Confused? Go with the prime minister. The Government isn't bound to do anything as a result of expressing support for the declaration, and apparently doesn't intend doing anything.

Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples, who flew secretly to New York to announce the Government's decision in front of a forum at the UN, says the support statement has no caveats. It does have caveats, one of them being a get out clause which says New Zealand's "engagement" with the declaration will be bound by its existing legal and constitutional framework.

It can be argued that most of its articles are already effective in New Zealand, such as protection of language and culture.

But there are others which would have profound implications, such as the right of indigenous people to possess, use and develop land they have traditionally owned.

Labour leader Phil Goff pointed out that could apply to all of New Zealand, which is probably why Harawira was so entranced by it.

The Government's decision has ignited an intriguing political debate. An explosive debate, as far as the ACT Party is concerned.

The previous government wouldn't support the declaration. It considered parts of it were contrary to the way New Zealand settles Treaty of Waitangi claims, and it wasn't happy about other constitutional implications either.

The present government either isn't concerned because it has no intention of allowing any of the declaration's articles to cause trouble, or it is confident the caveats protect it.

Then why support it? Key says this "symbolic" gesture will enhance the Crown's relationship with Maori. It will almost certainly enhance the Government's relationship with the Maori Party, which is a more practical result when it comes to locking in a support partner which might be needed after the next election.

National must be reaching the limits of its political tolerance with this, however much it tries to explain it away as having "no practical effect".

It has given the Maori Party the repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the new Whanau Ora social services delivery system, and now this.

The ACT Party, the first to sign a support agreement with National after the election, which gave Key the majority he needed to form a government, has been ignored.

Slighted even, if Rodney Hide's speech to Parliament was anything to go by. Hide said ACT was "appalled" to find itself supporting a government which had affirmed such a declaration. He clearly had no idea the announcement was going to be made, despite having a "no surprises" clause in the support agreement.

ACT has been badly treated. This show was stitched up by the Beehive and the Maori Party and the only media organisation there to see it was Maori Television.

That was controversial in itself, and it should be disturbing that MTV was considered to be the only media outlet worthy of being told in advance about the announcement. And that was initially denied, with unlikely explanations about its presence being a coincidence.

If the intention was to restrict coverage to a mainly Maori audience, it didn't work. What it did was inject another inflammatory aspect to the debate.

And as that debate goes on, Labour holds the high ground. It says it was being honest to itself and New Zealand when, as a government, it wouldn't support a declaration whose terms it couldn't meet -- aspirational or not.

At that time Australia, Canada and the United States held the same position. That has changed, and Australia's Labour government decided to support the declaration. Canada and the US are reviewing their stance.

Apart from those four, every UN member state supports the declaration including those with dreadful human rights records and some governments which subjugate their entire populations.

No problem, it isn't binding and most of them don't have an indigenous people problem anyway. It either wasn't there in the first place or they have dealt with it, one way or another.

It is being noted that declarations are often the forerunners of conventions, which do have teeth because member states are expected to ratify them and stand out if they don't. New Zealand does its best with these and Parliament recently had to make some minor law changes so the Convention on the Rights of Disabled People could be ratified.

It took about 20 years to get the indigenous peoples declaration off the ground. A convention, if it ever happens, is still a long way off.

In New Zealand, the declaration will cited by those who seek to use its articles to progress their cause. Harawira says it will be used to support Treaty claims. But as long as the Government considers it to have "no practical effect" it won't be making any difference.

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