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Speech: Goff - Living and learning

Mon, 12 July 2004

Living and learning together

Foreign Minister Phil Goff's speech to the UNESCO Human Rights Education conference, Orakei Marae, Auckland on July 11

It is a pleasure to be here today among so many specialists in human rights and human rights education.

When I came to office as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1990, I made it very clear that human rights would take a higher priority in the Labour-Alliance coalition's foreign policy. We have done just that.

Today I want to talk about New Zealand's human rights diplomacy, but it might be helpful if I first put this into the context of the international debate on human rights. That debate helps shape our own responses and our own policy formulation. After that I would like to offer a few thoughts about how human rights education might best fit into the frame.

International Debate

We hear a great deal of talk about global interconnectedness, about working towards a fairer trading environment, and about the work globally for a more peaceful and secure environment. But it is a sad commentary that this is also still a world beset by human rights abuses and by the wanton taking of life.

Here in New Zealand we take civil and human rights almost for granted. That is far from universal. In far too many parts of the world, such rights are restricted or denied. With the denial of rights come other harmful conditions: insecurity, crime, corruption, and poverty.

This is not to deny that the international community has made progress. It has. I think, for example, of the development of universal human rights standards. The core treaties on civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights are a very solid foundation for national legislation and conduct. They merit the fullest support and the widest geographical application.

New instruments are under negotiation, adding to the web of international law, setting norms and standards, and providing bases for practical cooperation in sharing best practice. One current example is the work on a convention to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities.

The worth of these instruments lies as much in their application as in their creation. At meetings of the United Nations in New York, and in bilateral meetings with other Ministers, the urgency of work in this area is one of the themes in my discussions.

From time to time it is argued that human rights are a western concept, alien to certain traditional and cultural values. The clearest rebuttal of that viewpoint came from the World Conference on Human Rights, held some 11 years ago in Vienna and attended by virtually every UN member state. Its declaration stated quite firmly that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated and interdependent.

Thinking back over the progress made in the twenty or so years since I became an MP, I do believe there is some cause for optimism. In the former Soviet Union, in large parts of Eastern Europe, in many countries in Latin America, in parts of Asia, democratic forms of government have been given new life. With it has come some important steps forward for individual citizens - the rule of law, media freedoms, and greater adherence to international human rights norms.

Think of South Africa. When I came into office it was still very much in the thralls of apartheid. Think, too, of Timor Leste. When I paid my first visit, only ten years ago, it was under a harsh military rule.

But let's be clear. For many countries, including some in our own Asia-Pacific region, human rights violations and constraints on democratic participation still persist. I have just attended the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Jakarta. A key topic there was the failure of Myanmar to fulfil its promises to remove restrictions that prevent the opposition National League for Democracy from taking part in the national constitutional convention. Both ASEAN and non-ASEAN members want to see change in Myanmar. So far, neither sanctions nor persuasion has produced that desired result.

Myanmar provides an example of the challenge faced by all those committed to advancing human rights: how to achieve effective change in countries where abuses endure while remaining consistent to our own principles and standards. We have to be sensitive to the surrounding cultural environment but there are higher, internationally-endorsed values.

New Zealand's human rights diplomacy

Which brings me to our own contribution. I made clear in taking this office that I wanted to give higher priority to human rights, and that we would pursue that end in the most effective manner. There has to be a clear and frank message. Public condemnation may be appropriate, but it is most often so only when other forms of communication are blocked or have failed. We operate as a member of the international community. New Zealand takes an active part in human rights deliberations at the UN. Apart from statements that my Ministerial colleagues and I deliver there, we give high priority to the subject through our delegation's contributions to the work of the UN committees.

At the moment, apart from working on the disabilities convention I mentioned earlier, we are making considerable progress, together with a group of like-minded countries, in negotiations towards a new UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We have been active in the UN Commission on Human Rights as an observer delegation, co-sponsoring resolutions, helping to draft and lobbying on a wide range of proposals to improve human rights mechanisms and their observance by national governments. We can be proud that New Zealand has over the past two years been recognised by Human Rights Watch as being among a small group of states holding to a firm, principled line on many key human rights issues.

Turning to our region, the government has supported efforts to expand human rights cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. We have been greatly assisted by the role you and your organisations have played. I am particularly encouraged to have seen the number of national human rights institutions grow. I want to acknowledge in particular the Asia-Pacific Forum, represented here today, for the way in which it has worked to develop human rights capacity in our region.

In the countries closer to home, in our own front yard, Marian Hobbs and I have worked to ensure that our development assistance is clearly focused on poverty alleviation, sustainable economic development and on good governance. These conditions promote regional stability. But they are also key components of the foundations for stronger individual rights.

I was especially pleased this year, when Pacific Islands leaders met in Auckland, to see the wholehearted support they gave to the need to promote and respect human rights throughout the region. It has given us all, in government, and among groups such as those represented today, a mandate for further work.

I have just returned this week from Vietnam and the Philippines. In Hanoi, I had formal discussions with the Vietnamese Foreign Minister during which we were able to talk candidly about some specific human rights cases and the importance of upholding human rights standards such as freedom of speech and religion. As is the case with China, huge improvements have been made in Vietnam since the 1970s, but there is still a long way to go.

Perhaps the most fundamental change, which will impact on both countries, is the growth of a larger, better-educated middle class. Those people have better communication with the rest of the world. Changes in human rights will take place within the context of a market economy in a globalising world.

Civil and political rights might be what we first think of when the subject of human rights comes up. But there are the host of what are called "second-generation" rights - the rights to health, to housing and to education.

My recent visit to Asia reminded me, once again, of their importance. My last stop was Manila. I have seen poverty elsewhere, but an abiding memory will be the conditions of life for those living in squatter settlements in Manila. Even more striking was the fact these settlements were but a short distance from suburbs which rival the best living standards of anywhere in the world. Families in the squatter settlements live without basic facilities such as running water, with high levels of infant mortality and with low life expectancy.

What I saw in Manila, some of you will have seen elsewhere. The phenomenon of high-rise glass towers alongside shanty villages is something I recall too from places like Johannesburg, Sao Paolo and New Delhi. And one finds similar contrasts, if not always so pronounced, in parts of the Pacific too.

National governments have the primary responsibility to address the absence of basic social and economic rights. But those of us in the developed world also have a role. To deny these economic and social rights is a violation as fundamental as any deprivation of civil and political rights.

Human Rights Education

So there is a job for us all. And that's where you come in. Human rights education is essential to the process of strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Indeed, human rights education is an obligation under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

And as I see it, this means far more than simply understanding and accepting rules and principles. It goes to the heart of the capacity to change attitudes and behaviour, breeding tolerance, and fostering tolerance and mutual respect.

This is the final year of the UN Decade for human rights education. I am pleased that it has helped raise awareness and to provide a framework for enhancing cooperation on the issue.

But it's only the first step. Having a consensus in the international community to establish a World Programme for human rights education is a good start.

Here in New Zealand, action has proceeded on several fronts: · The Human Rights Commission is mandated to use education to promote an understanding and respect for human rights. It has an active programme throughout the country; ·

In 2001, my Government passed the Human Rights Amendment Act. Among other things it gave responsibility for a National Plan of Action for Human Rights to the Human Rights Commission. It also strengthened the anti-discrimination measures that had been in place since earlier legislation; · The National Plan has involved wide consultation with the public and community groups to identify our human rights priorities. That process has in itself helped raised New Zealanders' awareness of their human rights and responsibilities; ·

I am confident that the Commission, together with the Ministry of Justice, will complete the National Plan by the end of this year. Once adopted by Parliament, it will establish practical goals and targets designed to improve our compliance with international human rights standards.

The Human Rights Commission has a team of educators, located here in Auckland, as well as in Wellington and Christchurch. They provide training to the public service, to community groups and to business. They also train the trainers who in turn pass on their knowledge and skills to others. What all this means is that we are now seeing human rights education becoming part of the formal education system in New Zealand. It is part of the social studies curriculum in primary and secondary schools.

That curriculum provides opportunities for teachers to develop student understanding of topics such as the negative impact of discrimination, and New Zealand's role in the international community. An on-line resource, the "Human Rights Pathway", has been developed to support the classroom teaching.

And, in the tertiary institutions, course in human rights have become more common. Most of our universities now offer places in international human rights as part of their law and political studies programmes. These courses cover the moral and philosophical basis of human rights. They also explain the wider significance within the international system.

That's all to the good. But human rights education is a matter for the home and workplace too.

The Human Rights Commission has developed a comprehensive programme to assist the public sector in incorporating human rights principles into work and workplaces. It aims to ensure awareness of, as well as compliance with, the standards laid down in the Human Rights Act.

The Commission also works closely with agencies to make sure human rights considerations are taken into account in developing all our government policies, legislation and regulations.

But the work does not stop with raising awareness here. New Zealand is also committed to raising awareness in the Pacific. As I said earlier, a human rights culture cannot be imposed from outside. It has to come from within.

We should not be - and are not - silent in the face of violations of democratic and human rights. We spoke out against the removal of the democratically elected government in Fiji in 2000. We spoke out, too, against the racist views expressed by some involved in that coup.

We have spoken out against the restrictions on the freedom of expression in Tonga. We have also decried the poor governance and the corruption that brought the Solomon Islands to crisis point.

Improvements, though, require more than simple condemnation. They need a real readiness to engage, and also a care that an expression of views doe not simply divert what should - indeed must - be a positive debate about democracy and human rights into one over sovereignty and independence.

As Minister, I have been keen, with Marian Hobbs, to make sure that the New Zealand Agency for International Development makes a significant contribution through initiatives aimed at strengthening governance and through fostering respect for human rights in the Pacific.

Just recently, we supported and took part in a Pacific Islands human rights consultation process in Suva. It was the first meeting of its kind in the region, surprising as that might seem. The meeting identified a number of human rights issues. But more, it also looked at some practical solutions to these concerns.

New Zealand has helped Pacific Island governments with the preparation of their periodic reports to human rights treaty bodies. And we continue to support the provision of human rights training for civil society organisations, government officials, the media and other groups.

We all need now to examine new ways of lifting cooperation on human rights education in our region. We need to make sure the message is delivered in an effective manner, and tailored to the specific needs of the region. Above all, we have to develop education programmes that are practical, relevant and easily understood.

Human rights are not about political correctness, as some might argue. Rather, we are, together, making a commitment to internationally shared values of justice, equality, tolerance, inclusiveness and respect for all.

Your meeting today is an important step forward in this process. I wish you well in your discussions and in your taking back to your home governments, peoples, and organisations the outcome of your deliberations.

ENDS


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