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Hager: UDHR needed In NZ Too

On the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Nicky Hager writes that it is needed in New Zealand as much as in faraway troubled places...

International agreements don't sound like things an ordinary person would read and appreciate. We imagine them written by and for diplomats and lawyers. But it would be a mistake to judge the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in this way. Signed into being on 10 December 1948, in the shadow of the atrocities of the Second World War, its power comes from simplicity and clarity. It is one of the achievements of human history.

It begins with the simple statement that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood." The declaration continues through 30 articles, expressing different parts of how people endowed with reason and conscience should act towards one another.

A fitting way to mark the Declaration's 60th anniversary is to use it for the purpose it was created: to measure our own actions. New Zealand has a pretty honourable record of recognising injustice in other parts of the world and taking action about it. But like most countries, we are not so good at applying the same standards to ourselves. We rely on international groups like Amnesty International and local human rights advocates (like the supporters of New Zealand's war-on-terror suspect Ahmed Zaoui) to raise uncomfortable issues about our country's actions.

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These watchdogs are necessary because the human rights issues arise over and over again. For example, in the late 1940s there was heightened awareness of the Jewish refugees who were turned away from country after country while desperately trying to escape Nazism. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights responded to this and declared "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." Yet still today, like the Jews of the 1940s, refugees escaping other terrible regimes, like those of Saddam Hussein and the Taleban, too often meet suspicion and resistance when they try to find a safe place to live. New Zealand has some honourable and some shameful sides to its record on this -- the latter including appalling new immigration legislation currently before Parliament.

Other atrocities from past eras led to the declaration that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." It is hard to imagine anyone in New Zealand not agreeing with this. Yet when New Zealand's military ally, the United States, has used torture and degrading treatment of prisoners in it 'war on terror', New Zealand put the alliance before its principles. Our government has made no criticism when it is the US doing the torturing and, in Afghanistan, appears to have passed prisoners into US military control fully aware they could be tortured.

A different kind of repression led to article 12: "No-one should be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks on his honour or reputation." This is a human right that we understand when we think of police states like Nazi Germany or the cold war East Germany. But we don't take it seriously enough in New Zealand. Here is a modern day story about Police trespassing on privacy and political freedoms.

In 2004 a group of idealistic young Aucklanders were doing their best to make a better world. They organised roudy but peaceful protests against the cruelty of battery hen farms -- a cause that most New Zealanders agree with -- and locked themselves to the front of fashion shops selling fur clothing. Not everyone agreed with them, but many people did. They occasionally broke minor laws (such as trespassing on chicken and pig farms to film the conditions) but this was lawbreaking in the tradition of Ghandi, not serious crime. They were human beings acting with reason and conscience.

In June 2004 Police intelligence detectives raided all the homes of the young people after a minor protest outside a fur shop. They were arrested on heavy charges, potentially involving long prison sentences and taken into custody. The Police intelligence officers searched their houses, removing not just 'evidence' concerning the fur shop protest but virtually everything else about their political activities.

Personal diaries, letters and photos were taken, as well as computers and computer disks containing with all their political e-mails and also their university studies and paid employment. The Police took the political posters off their walls (eg "6x Posters advertising garage sale for [the respectable animal welfare group] SAFE"), spare animal welfare leaflets, protest banners. They also took love letters, personal records, bank records and more.

All the charges were eventually dropped (they had been trumped up from the beginning) but the Police had already used the flimsy charges to stomp through their lives, intimidating and humiliating them. Following the cost and stress of the long court cases, the group has since ceased to be active, an unsurprising result of the heavy-handed policing.

If this was done by Robert Mugabe's police force, or in other faraway places, New Zealanders would see it as a disgraceful breach of human rights. But we are complacent about it at home, not imagining that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is needed just as much here.

However, the essence of human rights is that they are universal. If you say human rights abuses are justified when your side does them, then you can never credibly criticise anyone else for doing the same. When we defend human rights, we are defending what is best and most hopeful about all human society.

Nicky Hager is an author and journalist, living in Wellington.


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