Posts Tagged ‘UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights’

Guest Post by Kate: Human Rights are Universal.

datePosted on 08:42, May 8th, 2015 by Pablo

On returning this week from his trade mission in the Middle East, John Key stated on Breakfast TV that countries such as Saudi Arabia have views of human rights that are “different” from our own, justifying the government’s decision to exclude human rights issues from any trade agreement that New Zealand is able to secure in the region. That is putting it rather mildly. Saudi Arabia has one of the consistently worst human records in the world. While the mainstream media is quick to focus in on a discriminatory gender regime that bans women from driving and requires them to be covered from head-to-toe, such problems pale in comparison to the treatment of the foreign workers who make up at least a third of the country’s population, or the torture, imprisonment, and death sentences handed down to Christian converts, human rights workers, activists, journalists, and other critics of the ruling elite. Unlike the distinctly Saudi approach to gender relations, it is difficult to see how the Saudis themselves could seriously attempt to justify such severe human rights abuses in religious or cultural terms.

What is especially surprising about the Prime Minister’s statement is that, if he genuinely believes that Saudi Arabian understandings of human rights are “different” rather than simply wrong, this would put him far over on the fringes of moral philosophy into the cultural relativist camp. This is a space occupied only by academic extremists who have followed the logics of social constructionism to their absolute and final conclusions (i.e. there is no such thing as truth, which makes it rather hard to speak truth to power as many of these theorists seem to want to do), or a small minority on the extreme right, which proposes that liberal values can only ever be achieved in supposedly superior Western cultures. Sticking to this line of argument means that anything whatsoever can be justified in cultural terms to the point where, essentially, nothing practised by any society at any point in history can be criticised at all. What strange company for a Mr. Moderate who usually tries to avoid coming to any conclusions that could undermine his apparently undying popularity to be found in.

Furthermore, this is not the generally shared understanding most reasonable people have of these issues. In fact, New Zealand, along with just about every other country in the world, is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the wake of the horrors of World War Two and aimed at establishing a basic set of rights and liberties that countries should do their very best to uphold. Least it isn’t clear from the title of the Declaration, most of the world believes that human rights are universal, Mr. Key, not particular.

Saudi Arabia, by the way, does not accept these principles, rejecting the Declaration on the grounds that guaranteeing freedom of religion would be detrimental to the country’s own traditions, and that its own version of Islamic law supposedly upholds a higher threshold of human rights than this or any other international agreement. By far the more important point, however, is that New Zealand is itself a signatory to the Universal Declaration, which not only obligates us to ensuring that we uphold basic human rights within our own borders, but also to promote human rights abroad.

Yet when it comes to trade agreements, the explicit approach adopted by both recent centre-right and centre-left governments has been to exclude human rights from the negotiating agenda. This puts us at odds with the other members of the international “club” we belong to, to use another of the Prime Minister’s terms. Based on academic research, the World Trade Organization states that about 75 percent of contemporary trade agreements include human rights clauses, whether binding or non-binding, driven largely by the human rights promotion agenda of Canada, the European Union, and yes, the United States. It obviously cannot be assumed that these clauses always lead to substantive improvements in human rights outcomes, but they are a start.

The real reason behind both National and Labour’s exclusion of human rights concerns from the negotiation of trade deals is two-fold. Firstly, to state the obvious, New Zealand is very small in global terms, and thus cannot exercise much leverage over larger countries in the Asia and the Middle East. When countries are dependent on us for aid, absolutely do we try to influence human rights, most notably in the Pacific (which also occasionally invokes issues of culture and human rights that I don’t intend to get into here). Realistically, if we are to incorporate human rights concerns into our trade relations framework, this might more successful if done through multilateral arrangements—yet is it difficult to see human rights becoming a major concern of the kind of multilateral trade deals that New Zealand has wedded itself to, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Secondly, the bipartisan approach reveals not only a deep ideological commitment to free trade that is not necessarily shared by other developed countries, in which the influence of large protectionist interest groups often moderates that stance, but a rather naïve belief that trade deals and trade relationships can be separated from everything else. Despite good empirical and historical evidence that trade cannot be viewed independently from other aspects of foreign policy, we do this with regard to our security relations, in which government officials cannot see the long-term problem emerging out of the contradiction between an Asia-oriented trade policy and a Five Eyes-oriented security one, and we also apparently do it when it comes to more noble causes.

So herein lies the hypocrisy not only of our current leadership, but all those sectors of our community who stress trade above all other national goals. We tend to have a rather rosy view of our country not only as an independent voice in the international arena, but as a progressive force in the big wide world. We ban nuclear ships and we save whales. We were the first to give women the vote and at least some of protested against the Springbok Tour. We think we deserve a seat on the Security Council because we are nice (alternatively, to carry on the theme, there are those who no doubt think it will help us out on the trade front). Not caring—or pretending not to care— about the worst instances of human rights abuses, however, not only threatens to undermine this aspect of our national identity, but undermines both our reputation and potential as a global player that punches above our weight on moral issues.

Symbolic bidding war?

datePosted on 10:47, May 8th, 2009 by Lew

I have long defended the māori party’s decision to enter government with National on two grounds;

  • The decision is theirs to make on behalf of those Māori who form their constituency, not the decision of well-meaning Pākehā, or Māori who vote for other parties. They made clear before the election that it might happen; there is no credible argument for bait-and-switch.
  • By emphasising that the relationship of Māori with Labour is at arm’s length, they send the signal that no party can afford to disregard Māori as Labour did with the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Furthermore, if they can make the relationship with National work (and admittedly that’s a pretty big if) then it puts the māori party in a strong strategic position to promote a bidding war for the Māori policy agenda come the 2011 election and beyond.

The Key government’s record on Māori policy so far has been patchy at best, with the decision to exclude mana whenua seats from Auckland governance, and a distinct lack of targeted recession relief for māori who are especially hard-hit by the recession, showing that there’s still a lot of work to do on that relationship.

So it was with some surprise and pleasure that I heard National Radio’s report this morning that Justice Minister Simon Power has announced that the refusal to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be reviewed, thereby possibly withdrawing us from the other axis of evil of four countries who refused to do so. That can of worms wouldn’t have been re-opened unless there was a very good chance indeed of movement on the issue, since National would severely endanger its relationship with the māori party by ratifying Labour’s decision. So, this looks to me like the first symbolic shot in the bidding war for Māori favour. Or perhaps the second – with the first being Mita Ririnui’s private member’s bill to entrench the Māori seats.

The common objection from ideologues who opposed the māori party’s decision to work with National is that symbolic things are meaningless – a view taken directly from the subaltern Māori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia, who oversaw the Foreshore and Seabed debacle. In defence of the then-government’s decision to join that other axis of evil, he said:

I’m actually more than a little surprised the Mâori Party is prepared to back something which effectively offers indigenous peoples no more than aspirational statements.

The trouble is, unless preceded by banners bearing symbolic aspirational statements declaring a society’s position in principle, progress marches slowly. The Labour government recognised this in its grounds for refusing to sign the UNDRIP, viz, that it was possibly incompatible with our current laws. That’s the point best illustrated by another non-binding UN declaration, on Human Rights, whose most significant principle was that rights were not dependent upon local legislation but were declared to be universal, with the consequence that local legislation must change to meet the declaration where a conflict exists. By and large, local legislation in many signatory states has duly changed to meet the declaration, in spite of its non-binding nature. That is because its symbolic value is more than its practical value. (Amartya Sen is among those who makes this point, for example here). So it is with the UNDRIP – it presents an aspirational position toward which NZ may strive, along with practically everyone else.

Now, Power’s statement is carefully hedged with the words “as long as New Zealand’s current framework for indigenous rights cannot be compromised” – so actual policy change is still a long way off. But symbolic matters like this are a necessary condition for real progress, and the decision to review indicates that the government intends to take Māori issues seriously.

L