The government has halted efforts to start implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The draft national action plan has been put on hold, with no indication of what happens next.

It’s an issue that the Human Rights Commission has now raised with the UN. Speaking to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York last week, Professor Claire Charters highlighted the delay. Here, she outlines what she told them.


In December last year, the government unilaterally postponed work to finalise a plan to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The decision went against the wishes of the Iwi Chairs’ Forum and the Human Rights Commission.

Until it was paused, the process of developing the plan was commendable.

It reflected the equal governance authority of tangata whenua bodies and the Crown, as intended in Te Tiriti o Waitangi and confirmed in international law. And the many Māori communities that contributed to the process were clear on what they wanted in the plan.

Their strong and consistent message was that they wanted action to strengthen tino rangatiratanga, enact honourable Tiriti partnership, advance equity, and eliminate racism. It was also clear from what we heard that many whānau aren’t currently able to enjoy their fundamental rights.

We’re now in a state of limbo. Implementing the plan has been postponed for an unspecified time.

Yet, the recently completed Maranga Mai! report explains the immense and continuing harm endured by generation upon generation of Māori because of colonisation.

Implementing the rights of our Indigenous people in Aotearoa is a crucial step forward to combat this harm.

I agree with the government that the Declaration itself requires more explanation nationally. We need more people to understand what’s in it and what it means. But we can undertake both processes simultaneously given the strength of tangata whenua voices expressed about the draft action plan in 2022.

Implementing rights shouldn’t be subject to the political mood of the government of the day. So we remain of the view that our human rights obligations require the government to act now.

We’ve therefore asked the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to continue its oversight of our national plan of action — and we’ve also requested that the Special Rapporteur take up this issue with New Zealand.

One example of why this is necessary is the recent severe flooding we saw during Cyclone Gabrielle, which exposed the human and Indigenous rights dimensions of climate change-related disaster.

The devastating damage on land, housing, waterways, farms, cropping, vineyards, and people, affected the right to life, the right to a decent home, and the right to a healthy environment. And it put into sharp focus the obligations on business to respect and remedy breaches of human rights.

Reports tell us that, in some locations, more than 70 percent of the damaged homes were occupied by Māori, and more than 60 percent were rentals.

We saw our whare tīpuna filled with silt and forestry slash.

We know Māori are more likely to live in places vulnerable to climate change. And we’re also more likely to be poor, less healthy, uninsured, and either homeless or living in substandard and crowded housing.

Rather than waiting for government agencies, Māori got stuck in, cleaning up marae and providing shelter and support for our people to rebuild homes. Much of this mahi was done before civil emergency support even arrived.

Māori, in turn, must be supported in our efforts to respond to the impacts of climate change on our communities. Allowing us to realise self-determination is key to that support.

The right to self-determination is recognised in the UN Declaration, and the value of the approach is proven by more than 50 years of research at Harvard University.

But recently, in little more than a day, the government announced and closed submissions on its Severe Weather Emergency Recovery Bill. That’s one of two laws that will affect the long recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle.

It falls short of the Crown’s obligation to upholding our self-determination, and it doesn’t mention Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

Further, the bill’s provisions don’t meet standards set out in a raft of international agreements, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the OECD guidelines, and climate change agreements.

All states need to live up to their international obligations to put Indigenous peoples’ rights front and centre of their emergency response and their climate change laws and policies.

Māori rights must be part of all climate change and emergency policy and law — including New Zealand’s Severe Weather Emergency Recovery Bill. We also have a right to participate meaningfully in state laws on climate change mitigation, adaptation and response.

It’s been more than a decade since the National government signed Aotearoa up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

He Puapua, the expert working group’s report on the Declaration to inform a national plan of action, set out the various ways that self-determination for Māori could be realised, so that we’re actually doing something about that international commitment.

We know, from listening to Māori communities, what action is required to support whānau to live fulfilling lives, without need, and to address our own issues.

These are things that will bring greater unity in our country, not increase separation.

Making an effort to realise our commitment to the Declaration will also help Aotearoa to protect our international standing as a leader in upholding human rights.

We need to take action if we want to keep that reputation alive.


Dr Claire Charters (Ngāti Whakaue, Tūwharetoa, Ngā Puhi, Tainui) is Professor of Law at the University of Auckland, specialising in Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and is Rongomau Taketake at Te Kahui Tika Tangata / NZ Human Rights Commission. She chaired the He Puapua working group.

Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund 

© E-Tangata, 2023


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