They’re young, they’re hungry, and they’re not taking any crap. Waves of rangatahi activists are using the UN to share kaupapa Māori values with the world.
In 2017 Te Ara Whatu became the first all-rangatahi Māori delegation to attend a UN Conference, and played a significant role in advancing indigenous rights at the COP23 Climate Negotiations.
“It is when indigenous peoples come together that powerful things happen,” says India Logan-Riley, a member of the Te Ara Whatu organising committee. “Through building relationships and sharing ideas, we can start to gather under the rafters of our own whare to bring to light our own dreams, rather than just coming together when our governments or the UN wants us to.”
While she believes that engaging at the UN is important for rangatahi, Logan-Riley acknowledges that it isn’t always easy in a system that has not been designed for indigenous participation. “The basic structure of the UN is such that countries will never have to share power [with indigenous nations]. We still have to be invited and our opinions have to be approved by countries to be accepted.”
“Even when negotiating the Indigenous Peoples Platform – which is about us – we had to have ally countries invite us to the table and be heard… so unless domestic politics change to enable indigenous peoples to fully express our sovereignty then we never will be able to act as full parties to the agreements in the UN.”
Despite the numerous challenges to participation, it’s clear that indigenous rangatahi are still making the UN system work for them.
Te Ara Whatu’s advocacy highlighted the disproportionate burden of climate change on indigenous peoples, and contributed to the historic inclusion of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus (IPC) in direct negotiations, as well as the inclusion of all IPC principles the UNCOP decision on an Indigenous Peoples’ Platform. Their success has even enabled them to secure coveted accreditation to COP24 later this year, where they will ensure that these wins are implemented in the agreement’s rule book.
And now a new ‘migration’ of rangatahi Māori are gearing up to take flight again and present their kaupapa to the United Nations in Geneva.
Shrugging off deficit-based narratives about rangatahi Māori, He Kuaka Mārangaranga represent a new wave of indigenous activists who are fighting for our rights at home, and who are prepared to take their concerns global to get results.
Having been hand picked by Dr Lance O’Sullivan from over 300 young applicants, the 12 rangatahi attended the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues (PFII) in April. Ranging in age from 16 to 25, attending the PFII in New York was an eye-opening experience for the rōpū, who champion kaupapa as wide ranging as constitutional reform and protecting natural resources from exploitation.
He Kuaka delegate Ngaa Rauuira Puumanawawhiti says the Permanent Forum trip highlighted the shared struggles of many indigenous peoples around the world, as well as the unique position Māori are in to create global change. “Our people just don’t face the same risks to our lives as our other indigenous brothers and sisters do,” he says, referencing examples such as West Papua. “I know I can criticise my own government and not worry about returning home to citizenship or travel issues.”
Emboldened by their experience at the PFII, He Kuaka now want to return to the UN, to present a charter to the Expert Mechanism on Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP). EMRIP provides expert advice to the UN Human Rights Council, which is responsible for the protection and promotion of human rights around the world. He Kuaka say their charter will contain recommendations for “visionary change” to improve the wellbeing of indigenous peoples at home and abroad, and the rōpū are pulling out all stops to ensure they can deliver it in person next week.
However, Puumanawawhiti recognises that the rōpū are not alone in their advocacy. “Like the seasonal flight of the godwits [from which He Kuaka derives its name], we are merely another wave or ‘migration’… of rangatahi Māori, who are kaupapa-Māori driven.”
Millennials tend to be accused of ‘slacktivism’, but these rangatahi, and many like them, are prepared to do the mahi to uphold indigenous rights and the promises enshrined in Te Tiriti.
They know that unless they accept the wero, they will be the generation to see their marae and wahi tapu claimed by Tangaroa; they will be the ones to inherit prisons and hospitals filled with our own people; and they will receive the bequest of a societal model where indigenous knowledge and ways of being are seen as inferior to the ways of the West.
Increasingly, these rangatahi are choosing to make that exact model work for them, and turn to advocacy at the UN as a direct expression of tino rangatiratanga. Not just a rare few, He Kuaka are joined by dozens of other rangatahi using the UN to hold our government to account.
Also attending this year’s PFII were the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute delegation, led by young lawyer and justice reform advocate, Julia Whaipooti. Their mission was clear – delivering an address that called for an end to the Waikeria “mega-prison” plans that would inevitably house more Māori, on land that had been taken from mana whenua under the Public Works Act. Their plight was heard internationally, and at home, with a huge response in social and mainstream media. Amidst a loud public outcry echoing the rōpū’s concerns, the original plans for Waikeria have since been scaled back, with Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis saying, “In my opinion there is no greater risk to the future of Māori, than the increasing incarceration of my people.”
Another visionary rangatahi who took her protest to the UN is Pania Newton – a finalist for this year’s Matariki Awards Young Achievers prize, and spokesperson for community group SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape). SOUL have gathered significant momentum and international attention for challenging a Special Housing Development on sacred land at Ihumātao. While they don’t deny the urgent need for housing in Auckland, SOUL say the development has not included adequate consultation with mana whenua, and that it would destroy Aotearoa’s oldest stonefield settlement – a site of cultural, spiritual and archaeological significance. Newton has been occupying the land at Ihumatāo to prevent the development, and after exhausting local means, has also presented her case at a number of important UN meetings, culminating in the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination recommending the New Zealand government review the development.
While initially reluctant to take the case to the international level, Newton says, “From the beginning we always said we would exhaust every means available to us in order to defend our whenua. Going to the UN was one of those means.” She says she believes that attending UN meetings provides an important opportunity for young people to not only advocate, but also connect with the global indigenous whānau, and tautoko their activism.
With a strong grounding in te ao Māori; the backing of international research; a bold vision for the future; and the support of their communities, these young delegates aren’t afraid to tackle even seasoned politicians and diplomats to have their voices heard. A veteran of three COP negotiations, Te Ara Whatu’s Logan-Riley says, “Our young people have grown up with these stories… of deficits thinking, racism, and Treaty breaches.”
As Logan Riley says, “We need to be the generation that not only says ‘no’, but ‘never again’.” And in the colonial halls of the United Nations, it seems that our rangatahi have found an unlikely avenue to do just that.