Marianne Elliott is a Wellington-based human rights activist and lawyer who, having spent two years working with the Palestinian Human Rights Centre in the Gaza Strip, realised she didn’t seem to be helping much and came home to work on the New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights.
When I tell people that my job is to develop the New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights, the response is often one of scepticism. Few people can think of any significant human rights issues in New Zealand, and of those who can, many wonder what good an ‘action plan’ is going to do to improve things.
Given my own experience of two years living in the Gaza Strip and working for the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, I am not about to suggest that New Zealand is languishing near the bottom of the heap in a global sense when it comes to human rights. But I am convinced that we could and should do much better at ensuring the basic rights of all people in New Zealand are protected. I also believe that human rights offer a useful framework for ensuring economic and social development is truly sustainable and shared by all.
The idea for developing national action plans for human rights was originally Australia’s. They raised the concept at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights a decade ago. The Vienna Conference was something of a watershed moment for human rights internationally. It was the site of significant debate between Western and other nations over whether human rights were, in fact, universal or whether they were instead culturally relative.
At the time I was studying human rights at the University of Waikato School of Law, writing a paper on that very debate. I thought it was terribly important to resolve for myself the complex questions around human rights and cultural difference. I struggled to find a simple way forward which would justify my plans to make a life of working to promote and protect human rights (Whose rights? Defined by whom?).
Years later, when I was working as a human rights lawyer in the Gaza Strip, my boss and friend Raji Sourani suggested to me that those who rely on the defence of cultural relativism when arguing against the universal application of human rights principles are, more often than not, the same people who hold power within the system that they claim needs to be protected from outside interference. Those who are vulnerable, those without power or protection in that system, he argued, will not be the ones raising the cultural relativism argument. His assertions were of course debatable, except perhaps as the broadest generalisations, but they served my purpose at the time and offered a simple and practical way out of the maze, so I was happy to accept them.
In Vienna, the debate also found at least one quite practical exit route. The Australian concept of national action plans for human rights fits well with the concept that each nation, in light of its own particular social, cultural, economic and political environment, is in the best position to determine its own human rights priorities. The national plan of action was also an integrated approach to monitoring and promoting human rights, which fits nicely with the other key outcome of the Vienna consensus, namely, that human rights means all rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights.
Much has happened since Vienna in 1993. Things continued to look promising for human rights as the new millennium opened and government leaders pledged to find effective strategies for implementing economic, social and cultural rights as part of the Millennium Declaration goal to make globalisation a positive force for all the world’s people.
But the past two years have brought significant changes in priorities and perceptions at an international level. Recently Arundahti Roy spoke at Riverside Church in New York about the challenges facing human rights and democracy in the current international climate. In March 2002, when she was still the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson told a meeting in Beirut of human rights institutions from the Asia-Pacific region:
If human rights are respected, if basic education, housing and health care are secure, if there is freedom from personal violence and freedom for men and women to earn their living and raise their families, not only are human rights violations prevented, but conflict, terrorism and war can be prevented.”
It occurs to me that few people would argue with Ms Robinson’s sentiment, but many, like me, would wonder how we are going to secure these simple but fundamental rights to all the men, women and children of New Zealand, let alone of the world. There is no simple answer. The international framework of human rights offers a set of minimum standards for protecting human dignity and ensuring human security as well as an excellent platform for negotiating difficult choices about resource allocation. It does not, however, offer one simple or standard formula for applying that framework in any given nation. The application of the international standards in New Zealand needs to suit our own specific environment and to address our current human rights priorities.
So I agreed to take on the New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights. The approach is to undertake a comprehensive review of New Zealand’s current performance against key international human rights standards, identify priority areas for improvement, and then develop a set of realistic, practical actions to help make those improvements. We have until December 2004 to put this plan together.
But to mean anything at all this plan needs to be about the things that actually matter to people in New Zealand, and for that to be the case, a lot of people need to have their say on how it should be developed.
In a nationwide survey conducted by UMR Research for the Human Rights Commission in April 2003, 83% of respondents declared interest in the issue of ‘human rights in New Zealand’ (combined ‘very interested’ and ‘fairly interested’). 65% of respondents declared that they had a good level of knowledge about the issue of ‘human rights in New Zealand’ (combined ‘a lot’ and ‘a fair amount’).
However in a series of focus groups conducted by UMR Research in March 2003, findings indicated a lack of concrete knowledge of what basic human rights were. Knowledge on human rights issues had either been gleaned from media stories or personal experiences. Some struggled to identify human rights issues specific to New Zealand and introduced issues that were overseas-based. It was evident that “human rights”, is currently a “catch all” for a wide range of perceived injustices.
A significant amount of the focus group discussion on human rights issues in New Zealand centred on blurred understandings of where the rights of one group impacted on the rights of another group and confusion over where the line should be drawn. For some participants “human rights” was seen as a framework for conflict or tension between the competing claims of different groups.
Meanwhile, a human rights-based approach is being applied to an increasing number of fields of endeavour as the full extent of human rights obligations is becoming clear (good examples include the emergence of a rights-based approach to development programming and the excellent recent report on human rights and biotechnology). Put very simply, a human rights-based approach:
a) Places emphasis on participation of people in decision-making;
b) Introduces accountability for actions and decisions, which can allow people to complain about decisions affecting them adversely;
c) Seeks non-discrimination through the equal enjoyment of rights and obligations by all people;
d) Empowers people by allowing them to use rights as a leverage for action and legitimising their “voice” in decision-making; and
e) Links decision-making at every level to the agreed human rights norms at the international level as set out in the various human rights covenants and treaties.
A human rights approach will not provide all the solutions to the complex issues facing New Zealand today. As Paul Hunt and his collaborators point out in their excellent discussion document on taking a rights-based approach to poverty reduction:
“The application of [the international human rights] normative framework helps to ensure that essential elements of [policies], such as accountability, equality and non-discrimination, participation and empowerment, receive the sustained attention they deserve. But, for the most part, international human rights law does not, and cannot, provide detailed prescriptions for action. Building on the normative framework established by international human rights, detailed [policies and programmes] must be developed, through participatory processes, at the national and local levels.”
This brings me nicely back to my own work - the development of the New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights. Very soon an online questionnaire will be available for you to make your contribution to the process of developing a detailed, appropriate programme of action to implement international human rights standards here in New Zealand.
We are also developing some specific discussion documents to stimulate dialogue on particular human rights issues. Some examples of the issues on which we are seeking input include the right to freedom of expression and what the justifiable limits on that right might be, the effectiveness of ‘special measures to ensure equality’ or ‘affirmative action’ programmes, and the current status of the right to education in New Zealand.
I suspect many of you will have views on these subjects, and I hope I’ll get to hear them somewhere along the journey to develop the New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights.
Marianne Elliott can be contacted at