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UDHR 60th Anniversary

UDHR 60th Anniversary: Op-Ed:

Diana Pickard

Are we fluent in the universal language of the UDHR?

On the 10th December 2008 everyone in Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand will be wishing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “Happy Birthday”. For the past 60 years many human hopes have been carried on the back of this United Nations Declaration. Developed in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, New Zealand played a positive role in its creation.

It has many offspring - international human rights treaties on children, civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, the rights of refugees, of women, of those with disabilities. The list goes on. This year New Zealand made its first submission to the UN under a new Universal Periodic Reporting system, commenting on how we match up to these universal standards. And for the first time, non government organisations including Amnesty were able to make their own submissions direct to Geneva.

The challenge is for New Zealanders to consider, after six decades of living with the UDHR, the robustness and resilience of our human rights culture at home. Are human rights too thinly protected? We have no entrenched Bill of Rights or Constitution. A government may override human rights in order to be tough on those in our society they decide are less worthy. Do each of us – the MP developing policy, the panel beater developing RSI, the teacher developing minds and the school student developing friends – sufficiently understand the part human rights play in our daily lives, and in the lives of others? In short, if human rights were a language, how well are we speaking it?

For some human rights, we are fluent and articulate. Around election time you could almost say, verbose. We enjoy, for example, the freedom to express our views, and to vote for the political party of our choice. At any time we are able to choose where to live and who we live with. Our rights are protected when we are in hospital, or in court.

But when it comes to other human rights, sadly we speak less well. We do without the phrase book. We are slow to articulate. In the worst cases, it seems we barely know the equivalent of “hello” or “where is the bathroom?”.

Amnesty’s recent submission to the UN mentioned some of these miscommunications, these grave abuses of human rights. They include the children in New Zealand doing without an adequate standard of living; the indigenous people whose customary rights in the foreshore and seabed have been all but put beyond reach; and the one in three New Zealand women who throughout their lifetime experience physical and/or sexual abuse at the hands of a partner and so do not experience peace and security of the person.

We can do better. The UDHR has shown us that human rights are a universal language, an international language, indeed - as Seamus Heaney says - an international moral consensus. You can spend 16 hours in the sleep sapping space that is economy long haul, but when you disembark the language of human rights will be the same. Perhaps a new dialect, but the same persuasive language.

So the more fluently we in New Zealand speak it, care about it, protect it, stand up for it at home, with our Pacific neighbours and far beyond, the better the conversation is for everyone, everywhere. Participating in that conversation is the challenge for you and me, and Amnesty gives us one way to do so. As Tennessee Williams remarked, humanity is just a work in progress. Many happy returns.

Diana Pickard is Vice Chair of Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand. She is a lawyer who has worked in the area of human rights for over 15 years, through positions in the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Justice's Human Rights Team, and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner.


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