The Aotearoa Young Leaders Institute delegation to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 2018.

Rangatahi on a mission: the young Māori taking their prison protest to the UN

This week a group of young Māori leaders are at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to address the building of a billion dollar prison on confiscated Māori land.

Established in 2000, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is one of three UN bodies mandated to deal specifically with indigenous rights. Since the beginning Māori and Pacific leaders have used the forum to disseminate ideas and issues.

The Permanent Forum’s role is to provide advice to the United Nations on indigenous issues and this year the theme is ‘collective rights to lands, territories and resources’ – an issue still at the very heart of Māori issues with the Crown.

Travelling to New York for this year’s conference is a delegation coordinated by the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute. AYLI are an advocacy group with strong UN accreditation that, while they don’t fund groups directly, are responsible for training youth delegates to send to international conferences, most recently sending a group to COP23, the climate change talks in Bonn Germany.

Back row L-R: Jamie Berry, Liam Gray, Julia Whaipooti, Samantha Jackson, Merenia Hudson.
Front row: Pikihuia Haenga Little, Danny Poa, Trinity Thompson-Browne, Lile Vaka, Christina Leef.

PFII 2018 is their first time endorsing a Māori group. Head delegate Julia Whaipooti (Ngāti Porou), a young human rights lawyer that works with the Children’s Commission and justice advocacy group JustSpeak, was shoulder tapped by AYLI to lead the group. A panel of experts then handpicked another nine exceptional rangatahi to to join her in Te Aporo Nui, and take their unique voice to the UN.

Whaipooti says that it’s the first time for all of them attending any kind of UN forum and she’s grateful to be going over with a large group. Mentors they’ve talked to have spoken of the pressure of taking Māori issues to international conferences alone. “We’ve heard from people like Tina Ngata and Teanau Tuiono, Kiritapu [Allen], Velmaine Toki, Moana Jackson – Māori who have gone before and been really lonely in that space and had to represent all of our people.”

She says law professor Valmaine Toki described the forum as a huge Waitangi Tribunal with 50 Crowns in it. “You’re going to hear mamae from all over the world from whānau who are facing murder and genocide. That’s heavy stuff to take on but we can’t waste that opportunity.”

Joining her is 24-year old Danny Poa (Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Kahungunu) who met Whaipooti through his work as a youth advocate for legal service Community Law. He says he’s as prepared as he can be to bear witness to the trauma indigenous people face all over the world. “We know many indigenous whānau look up to Māori and want what we have…that we’re OK relative to what a lot of other indigenous whānau go through, genocide, human trafficking. So it’s our responsibility to go there and to listen but it’s still our responsibility to talk about our intergenerational trauma and things like over representation in the justice system.”

21-year-old Trinity Thompson-Browne (Ngāti Kangunu ki Wairarapa), founder of media company Fruit from the Vine, agrees there’s only so much preparing you can do but the stories need to be heard. “I’ve been over to Cambodia and I’ve stayed in the slums over there and heard from second and third generation people from the Pol Pot regime about how it’s affected their family. I’ve heard firsthand from the people themselves what genocide looks like. It’s going to be difficult, no matter which way I go into it.”

Whaipooti explains the structure of the conference: there’s the forum itself, and then side events you can organise and attend with other delegates.

“There’s a chance to speak directly to the forum, you get five minutes to lay down a take on the table. They listen to states first, the governments from different countries who are paid to be there who usually say something like ‘we’re doing really good things, these are all our programmes and initiatives for indigenous people’.

“We will be applying to do that so we don’t waste the opportunity. The theme is around land and resource issues. We’ve decided as a roopu to talk about the new prison build that’s going on confiscated Māori land.”

Head delegate Julia Whaipooti talks about their presentation to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on the building of Waikeria prison on confiscated Māori land.

Last year the former National government announced plans for a new $1 billion mega-prison facility at the current Waikeria Prison site. Minister of Justice Andrew Little says the current government has been considering “a range of options”, but they haven’t announced plans to stop construction, looking in all likelihood like it might still go ahead.

“They’re going to build another prison with 1500 more beds. We know that half those beds are going to be filled with Māori. We know it’s going to cost $1 billion to build and then to house individuals in that prison will cost $108,00 per year. We also know the prison is on confiscated Māori land… that’s land that was taken from iwi for the benefit of the public. We think there’s better ways to reinvest $1 billion dollars into our health system, housing, education, ways that whakamana and support our communities..”

Lance O’Sullivan’s Moko Foundation are also attending the Permanent Forum, with their own youth contingency, to talk about indigenous health models. “We’re going to hook up with the Moko Foundation that are going to be over there as well and hopefully run an indigenous rangatahi side event.”

Thompson-Browne says the side events offer a chance to attend and run talks, panels and events around other issues, and for each delegate to explore and network with others with similar interests. For her, the pressing issue is youth suicide rates. She’s hoping her company Fruit from the Vine can reduce suicide statistics by providing better representations of indigeneity in media

“The positive ways that rangatahi are saying ‘I can be Māori, I can be indigenous, and it’s not something I need to run from or be afraid of or feel unsafe about, it’s something that I can walk with confidently’. The reduction of suicide becomes a byproduct of that model. So seeing what the potential is within other cultures, because suicide within indigenous peoples is definitely big in a lot of spaces.”

She’s excited to talk to other indigenous rangatahi about representation in media. “What’s their relationship with media and their indigeneity? What’s their perspective? How is it exploited or appropriated? How is it utilised or empowered?”

Like Whaipooti, Thompson-Browne is thankful to be going over there with an awesome group of rangatahi. “It enhances the experience because we all know we’ve got each other’s backs, we’re there for each other, and it’s something that we’re going to be journeying through together as well as individually. It’s strength in numbers. I’m really blessed, really thankful to be going over with them.”

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