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A. Ravlich: Psychiatric Survivors At The Beach

Psychiatric Survivors Inc. is now occupying Pt Chevalier Beach seemingly the Price of Political Dissent in New Zealand.

By Anthony Ravlich

Psychiatric Survivors Inc. is now homeless and is occupying Pt Chevalier Beach. This very independent organization, which was set up as a charitable trust in 1988, is among the leaders in Auckland in promoting the very controversial economic, social and cultural rights which require a ‘fair go’ for everyone. Six years ago it had its funding cut – the price, it seems, of its political dissent. As a consequence they have been unable to find suitable headquarters to provide for some of the most disadvantaged.

‘Survivors’, which has seen thousands of community-based mentally ill pass through its doors over the past 18 years, have set up their ‘Welcome Inn’ in a make-shift shelter with a tarpaulin for a roof. It occupies the remains of a derelict changing room overlooking the beach. It has been their third week on the beach. They are now in a much better situation than in the first week when they used the men’s changing rooms – a situation the female members did not appreciate. People who saw their new shelter overlooking the beach invariably admired the enterprise of this small group. There were enough seats and a meal was still provided, albeit now cold, and a gas burner for coffee and tea. Food parcels were still available for some of those in need. At first sight it could be seen as ‘just an enjoyable day at the beach’ until it is realized that given the precarious situation of this organization means its members may be deprived of the only place they have acceptance in this society. Many often have to live with the mental health system beckoning them on one hand and the criminal justice system on the other yet they have managed to survive in a society which has amongst the highest rates of suicide and imprisonment in the world.

Typically the West, including New Zealand, only defines human rights in terms of civil and political rights but economic, social and cultural rights are also included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Civil and political rights can be found in the common law (inherited from Britain), the Human Rights Act 1993 and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 (the authority now being the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). By contrast there are no economic, social and cultural rights in law (although both sets of rights were ratified under international law by New Zealand in 1978). However there is a requirement under Section 5 (a) of the Human Rights Act 1993 that New Zealanders be educated in economic, social and cultural rights. But the Human Rights Commission, by their own admission, state that successive governments have refused to fund this. This was also stated publicly on 10th December 1998 by the former Proceedings Commissioner, Chris Lawrence, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So ‘Survivors’ in their promotion of these rights is doing nothing more than what the government is meant to do by their own law.

Over the past five years Psychiatric Survivors Inc., helped fund a radio program on human rights, which lasted for 18 months, dealing largely with economic, social and cultural rights. They also provide considerable support to the Human Rights Council Inc. (2001) providing the bulk of its membership and in conjunction with the council helped stand three candidates in the last two elections under the banner of the Human Rights Party. Also from Christmas Eve to New Years Day (24th December to 1st January 2004), they protested against homelessness by sleeping overnight in a park in Grey Lynn – Cox’s Bay Reserve. They argued that the right to decent shelter was ‘core obligation’ of the State. In this respect they were well ahead of New Zealand’s human rights establishment. The Human Right Commission’s New Zealand Plan of Action for Human Rights, released in February 2005, stated in its priorities for action there was a need to ‘implement initiatives to make housing more affordable and accessible for low income households….’. The irony is that while some members have now obtained much appreciated Housing New Zealand homes ‘Survivors’ finds itself homeless.

For survivors the political price of promoting economic, social and cultural rights which include the rights to employment, fair wages, health, housing, education and an adequate standard of living is the further minimization of the civil and political rights provided by the system. For example, their right to association is now seriously in jeopardy as is their liberty (freedom of thought and action) because ‘Survivors’ gives much needed moral support for members wanting to develop their talents, abilities and skills (freedom of expression). Also in its many ‘talks’ in the community it would ensure members’ views (freedom of speech) are heard. As an independent organization it acts as a watchdog on the mental health system especially in their use of compulsory treatment orders by visiting patients in hospital and discussing their treatment (the right to refuse medication).

Also what is rarely discussed is the high number of the male members who rarely have the option of marriage or personal relationships because of the reluctance of females to mix at this level of society (the right to marriage and found a family is regarded as fundamental and can be found in both sets of human rights). Already a number of its members live a hazardous lifestyle – on the streets, in their cars or in dangerous boarding houses and endure an extraordinary degree of isolation. It is not uncommon for them to tell you ‘there are no human rights’ as their right to life and security of the person is often infringed.

There is often no such thing as privacy at this level of society – government departments know all their details. They are usually discriminated against more on the grounds of their poverty and their lower class culture than their mental illness which is less visible. Yet because of the narrow view the system takes of human rights the focus has been non-discrimination on the ground of disability ignoring their poverty. Often these people, including people with university degrees and some from the middle classes, have little hope of succeeding in a society where, in my opinion, political conformity is far more important than ability – this view is supported by ordinary New Zealanders when they often say ‘its not what you know its who you know’.

With such little hope it is perhaps not surprising that there will be those who have recourse to drugs, violence, suicide and crime. Such anti-social behavior brought to an end their most recent headquarters in Warnock St., West Lynn, and the Homestead, Pt Chevalier, but lack of funding has meant they were unable to find a suitable base. It is obvious that the system, even on its own terms, civil and political rights, falls well short of ensuring these human rights in practice.

It seems the Water Pressure Group in Auckland is also subject to such political discrimination with their promotion of the right to water also an economic, social and cultural right. Penny Bright, who heads this group, has been subject to a number of court appearances for her political activities.

The political elite can be broadly defined as the political wing of the middle class, professional sector – at core they uphold civil and political rights and the right to property. These human rights are primarily in their interests (for more on the political nature of human rights see my article – Recapturing the New Zealand Dream - on the internet). It is the core ideology of a consensus formed across the political spectrum in parliament (a liberal-conservative consensus) which excludes economic, social and cultural rights allowing governments to maximize or minimize social justice whenever and to whomever they choose.

In my view if economic, social and cultural rights had been included in human rights law prior to 1984 the extension of the liberal-conservative consensus from civil and political freedoms to economic freedoms (i.e. globalization, privatization and user pays) would have considerably lessened the growth in the gap between rich and poor. The liberal-conservative elite to a very large extent control human rights education and consequently can limit the speed of human rights development. As stated by Tyson and Aziz Said: “The model of a modern democratic state was – and still is – a capitalist, mercantilist, middle-class system and society, emphasizing civil and political rights, and arguing that economic, social and cultural rights will come later, that they will have to wait, because after all, “these things take time”, as the old segregationists in the South of the United States used to say” (Human Rights: A Forgotten Victim of the Cold War, p591).

The concern of the liberal-conservative elite is that education particularly in economic, social and cultural rights will increase public expectations. For example, the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 was successfully opposed at the time by the Prime Minister, Geoffrey Palmer, who was the main architect of the bill despite the recommendations for the inclusion of ‘key economic, social and cultural rights’ by the Justice and Law Reform Select Committee which was considering the White Paper’s proposal for a Bill of Rights.(Paul Hunt, Reclaiming Social Rights, 1996, pp44-45).

In 1997 former Prime Minister David Lange described the political establishment’s concern regarding the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights when he stated: “ The reason why economic, social and cultural rights aren’t included in the bill of rights is that people will start claiming them. That would have been too much for Geoffrey. I can’t see any way of amending the bill other than by using the political process to create a climate for change, which isn’t an encouraging prospect, given the temper of the present parliament and the relative strength of the parties. What you are talking about, as you know, would need a fundamental alteration in the thinking of our political establishment. It may come in time, but it won’t come easily, which means I can’t offer you any answer other than the long hard grind of political activism” (Personal correspondence dated 4 March 1997).

However another reason for the exclusion of these rights is that neo-liberalism (apart from its determination to spread ‘freedom and democracy’ globally with minimal regard for social justice) focused development at the middle class, professional and corporate levels. As a consequence many of the rest were required to be flexible, literally ‘jacks of all trades’, and take any employment as outlets for their skills, talents and abilities diminished due to globalization with its emphasis on cheap overseas imports rather than domestic production .

Economic, social and cultural rights in law would not only have allowed people to challenge any human rights violations due to globalization or privatization but would have provided much needed social and economic support for social and economic entrepreneurs in the fields of health, education etc. In my view it can often be the lack of social acceptance more than the money that leads people to give up their dreams. As noted by the Ministry of Social Development in their 2003 Statement of Intent, a requirement of social development is that ‘particular rights (civil, political, social and cultural) are formally recognised’ (Quoted by the Human Rights Commission, Status Report for the New Zealand Plan of Action for Human Rights, Feb 2005, p8).

The liberal-conservative elite seem to oppose any threat to elite control of the human rights agenda. While external dissent is suppressed the elite continues to interpret what constitutes human rights and what should be implemented. For instance last year economic, social and cultural rights were given their most significant recognition in New Zealand since the New Zealand delegation, led by former PM Peter Fraser, to the United Nations in 1948 played a major role in having these human rights included in the universal declaration and in the process antagonizing its Western allies, who only championed civil and political rights.

In February 2005 economic, social and cultural rights were included in the Human Rights Commission’s New Zealand Plan of Action for Human Rights. In addition the New Zealand government promotes the equal status of civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights at international forums such as the United Nations and the Asia Pacific Forum but the public is not informed about this. Also at an international level after 55 years the United Nations (with New Zealand attending the working groups) is moving towards the final stages of drafting a complaints procedure (Optional Protocol) for the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which allows those suffering social injustices to make complaints to the United Nations.

Also open-ended working groups (also attended by New Zealand) are presently meeting to discuss the Declaration on the Right to Development (1988) and how policies should conform to human rights so all people can develop their skills, abilities and talents . What is surprising about the development declaration is that it recognizes the equal status of both sets of rights (which the United Nations promotes at least in terms of rhetoric e.g. Linberg Principles 1987, Vienna Declaration 1993, Maastricht Treaty 1992). This comes 36 years after the universal declaration was divided, at the West’s insistence, into two covenants thereby separating the two sets of rights (Henry Shue, Basic Rights, 1980, pp158-159) thereby enabling the West, and New Zealand, to define human rights only in terms of civil and political rights. Also while most jurisdictions have included civil and political rights in law very few countries even after 58 years since the signing of the universal declaration have included economic, social and cultural in law as justiciable rights (amenable to judicial determination) (Mario Gamez, Social Economic Rights and Human Rights Commissions, 1995, pp155-169). These countries include Norway, Finland, South Africa and Russia.

Despite some above positive human rights developments they been ponderous in the extreme. The global elites seem to lack the political will to educate their populations in human rights. However education in the universal declaration is described by Sir Geoffrey Palmer as a legal duty of countries under the United Nations Charter (Human Rights and the New Zealand Government’s Treaty Obligations, Address to the International Law Association, Auckland, 30th April 1998). Without it people will not be able to make informed choices at election time and take control of the human rights agenda.

In response to my request for information from the UN High Commission for Human Rights regarding human rights education Mosfeca Chowdhury, Methodology, Education and Training Unit referred me to the ‘summary of information received from Governments concerning their human rights activities in the framework of the United Nations Decade of Human Rights Education (1995-2004)’. However examining the responses of these 90 countries reveals human rights are not defined i.e. there is no way of knowing whether or not they include economic, social and cultural rights.

The only countries that mentioned the latter rights were Colombia and with Mexico only referring to health rights. In 2005, ‘as a follow-up’ to the UN Decade of Human Rights Education the UN embarked on the World Programme for Human Rights Education which as a first step focuses on human rights education in schools, however, Mosfeca Cowdhury states that ‘according to our records, a statistical data on countries teaching economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political rights in schools is not available”(personal correspondence, 14th March 2006).

In 1998 New Zealand developed a human rights module for primary, intermediate and secondary schools however it is not known how many schools have chosen to take up the option in their social studies curriculum. I am informed by Rosslyn Noonan, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner, that research is presently under way to find out the extent of human rights education in New Zealand schools. Since the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action was adopted in June 1993 only 14 countries (including New Zealand) have developed action plans which often include economic, social and cultural rights requiring consultation with NGOs. However the education is very limited with Kathy Lys, Consultation Facilitator for the action plan reporting that 4558 people were approached.

The lack of political will with respect to education particularly in economic, social and cultural rights with its concern for poverty, is now reflected in the much heralded UN Millennium Development Goals, signed by all countries in September 2000, which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education all by the date of 2015. But according to the Human Development Report 2005: “….most countries are off track for most of the targets. The world is heading for a heavily sign-posted human development failure…”.

In our view, if global elites no longer possess the will to address social justice then it must come from ordinary people. At the international level we are seeing the beginning of a rising tide of dissent as evidenced by nuclear proliferation including North Korea and possibly Iran, the spread of socialism in South America, global terrorism, and the ideological divide developing between the developed and developing nations (see my article in the ESR Review: Division in the UN over a complaints procedure for socio-economic rights: New Zealand’s reluctance to take sides).

The plan adopted by our council with the support of ‘Survivors’ is to educate people in human rights so they can make informed choices at election time. We have set up the Human Rights Party (which could be adopted universally) for this purpose. In terms of economic development we consider that there is potentially a vast reservoir of talent in society which has been largely suppressed since 1984. It is often underestimated, in our view, the extraordinary efforts people will make for what they love doing and believe in. In our view, their new ideas and the promise of economic, social and cultural rights should now replace the old ideas the corporations represent and the elite’s limited concept of human rights.


Anthony Ravlich - Chairperson Human Rights Council Inc. (Member of ‘Survivors’ since 1992).


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