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Human Rights Agenda for the Pacific

A Reflection on the Human Rights Agenda for the Pacific on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On 10 December, along with other human rights defenders in New Zealand and around the globe, Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. And there is, indeed, much to celebrate. The UDHR can rightly claim to be the ancestor of a large number of human rights treaties including the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and its companion International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Other offspring include the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the recently concluded 2007 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Aside from human rights treaties, there has been the wider work of the United Nations and its agencies in furthering the values espoused in the Universal Declaration. Important, too, has been the work of human rights organisations like Amnesty. Since 1961, Amnesty International members around the world have taken action to ensure the world is a more just place. Significant human rights victories include the end, by and large, of the colonial era - there were only 58 UN member states in 1948; today there are 192. We have also witnessed the end of apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in the United States. There has been the growth of democracy and a growing acceptance that diversity is something to be cherished rather than stifled.

In New Zealand, we have seen greater recognition of the rights of Maori as indigenous peoples, huge leaps forward in terms of women’s rights, and more recently, with the amendment of section 59 of the Crimes Act, a recognition that violence against children is not ok. And, a lesser known anniversary being commemorated in 2008 is the 30th anniversary of the establishment of New Zealand’s own Human Rights Commission.

But as we celebrate what has been achieved, it is also timely to consider what might be yet to come. What might the Universal Declaration inspire in the future? As we consider the state of human rights in our own Pacific region, there is one obvious frontrunner when envisaging future developments. Almost every other region of the world has a regional human rights system. Those in Europe, the Americas and Africa are the most established. More recent initiatives include the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and the formation of an ASEAN working group to look at establishing a regional human rights commission.

So, in our own Pacific region, might a future grandchild of the UDHR be the development of a regional Pacific mechanism for the protection of human rights? There are some positive signs of moves afoot. A symposium was held in Samoa earlier this year to discuss the possibility of such a mechanism. A Parliamentary Select Committee in Australia is currently conducting an inquiry into human rights mechanisms in Asia and the Pacific, with a particular focus on regional mechanisms.

What might a Pacific mechanism look like? Well, that remains to be seen, but its potential as a force for human rights protection in the region is significant. Consider, for example, how such a mechanism might provide a stronger regional voice to promote the return of democracy in Fiji, or support further steps towards full democracy in Tonga. Or, how a regional mechanism might support culturally appropriate responses to endemic violence against women and children in New Zealand and our Pacific neighbours. Would a strong regional human rights voice be able to support nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati as they respond to the threat of rising sea levels? Closer to home, might the outcome of the foreshore and seabed crisis have been different had there been a strong regional voice for human rights?

The potential of a regional mechanism in advancing human rights in our Pacific region is untapped and unknown. But the possibilities are exciting. So, as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let’s also look forward and take action to promote future legacies of the UDHR in our own Pacific region.

Natalie Baird is a lecturer at the School of Law, University of Canterbury. She is also a member of Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand’s Governance Team.


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