The Tino Rangatiratanga flag flies on the maunga at Ihumātao. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Nothing to fear: Why the Human Rights Commission is backing He Puapua

The He Puapua report on how Indigenous rights can be better protected in Aotearoa has caused a lot of unnecessary fear and confusion, write chief human rights commissioner Paul Hunt and race relations commissioner Meng Foon.

In 2019 a government-established working group was asked to advise on the development of a New Zealand action plan for the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, also known as UNDRIP. That action plan is known as He Puapua.

The declaration, adopted by the United Nations in 2007, sets out the globally agreed standards for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Successive New Zealand governments from both sides of the political spectrum have committed to implementing it.

The declaration covers a whole range of human rights, affirming that Indigenous Peoples are entitled to enjoy these rights fully and without discrimination. It asserts that Indigenous Peoples are entitled to exercise the fundamental right to self-determination and participate in decisions that affect them. It upholds Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their distinct identities, cultures, languages and way of life while underlining their rights to lands, waters and the natural environment.

The declaration aims to address the fact that these fundamental rights have been denied and undermined by colonisation and its legacies of structural racism and inequity.

Of particular interest to New Zealanders is the declaration’s reinforcement of the rights enshrined in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and its creation of a blueprint for upholding the promises it contains. It also builds on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the New Zealand government helped to draft in the 1940s.

We believe New Zealanders should not fear the development and strengthening of Indigenous rights.

Māori want the ability to look after their people and make decisions for their people while working with the government for the betterment of all New Zealanders. We support the promises within Te Tiriti o Waitangi around tino rangatiratanga for Māori and kāwanatanga, or the coming together in partnership to create harmonious relationships.

While the UN declaration is now universally accepted there are major gaps between the standards contained in the document and what is being practised. This is demonstrated by the continued inequity experienced by Indigenous Peoples around the world.

For tangata whenua in Aotearoa this is evident in areas like health, housing, justice, income, and wealth. International research shows that upholding rights such as self-determination and enabling Indigenous Peoples to control their lives has positive impacts on these outcomes.

New Zealand governments past and present have recognised the value of Māori-led approaches through programmes and initiatives aimed at upholding rangatiratanga, such as Whānau Ora.

Action plans like He Puapua are viewed internationally as an important pathway to addressing the implementation gap. Countries like Canada are not only developing action plans but also embedding obligations under the declaration into law.

In Aotearoa, where there is significant commonality between the declaration and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, ensuring these rights are translated into meaningful action is imperative.

Enabling Māori control over Māori lives is not something to fear or condemn. Numerous reports and decades of evidence show that many of our current systems have not delivered for Māori.

While some have compared forms of “separate governance systems” with apartheid it must be recognised that pluralistic systems operate peacefully around the world, in places with Indigenous populations such as Canada, the US and the Nordic region.

Tangata whenua had existing systems of governance prior to Te Tiriti. As the Waitangi Tribunal has found, those who signed Te Tiriti had no intention of abandoning those systems. Rather, Te Tiriti provides for co-existing systems of governance: Crown (kāwanatanga) and iwi and hapū (rangatiratanga). The details of how the relationship between Māori and Crown would work in practice remains to be worked through on a case-by-case basis.

We encourage New Zealanders to let go of unnecessary fear about He Puapua’s recommendations. Attempts to stoke fear into anger aren’t helpful and it is becoming increasingly evident that such moves are out of step with the majority of New Zealanders’ beliefs.

We look forward to government decisions on the next steps and to broader discussions and engagement over details of its plans. He Puapua provides a valuable basis for that.

Far from promoting secrecy, the report recommends a wide national discussion on how New Zealand upholds its obligations under the UN declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples and Te Tiriti.

As part of its strong focus on a Tiriti partnership-based process, the He Puapua report notes that:

“A bold and ambitious plan will have implications for broader Aotearoa New Zealand, including, in the long term, the way that power is fairly shared by Treaty partners through our governance and constitutional structures. It is important therefore that all New Zealanders understand and are part of the plan, have an opportunity to help create a vision for 2040 and are included in a longer national conversation.”

This is a critical discussion to be having. As the report continues,

“Aotearoa has reached a moment in time, a maturity, where we can honestly reflect on how we might realise Te Tiriti promises agreed to in 1840 by the bicentenary of its signing.”

Let’s hope so.




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