Re-imagining human rights for New Zealand

October 16, 2020

By Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt.

This first appeared in the Dominion Post on 16 October.

There’s a global pushback against human rights.

Around the world, authoritarian “strongmen” are behaving like Roman Emperors. Supported by their disaffected ‘base’, they peddle racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance.

The echoes of 1930s Europe are unmistakeable.

New Zealand is not immune to this pushback any more than it is immune to the murderous ideology of white supremacists. 

Enormous challenges

As authoritarianism spreads and mutates, the world is facing a staggering accumulation of challenges. New Zealand is not immune to them, either.

The world faces a lethal pandemic, recession, deepening poverty, widening inequality, climate change, foreign interference in democracies, and under-regulated social media that openly incites violence.

These challenges are threatening the wellbeing of billions of people, especially the most disadvantaged. They blight the future of our young people. 

This is precisely when human rights should be playing their historic role.

Human rights do not provide magic solutions to immensely complex problems. But they provide anchor and compass. They can help to steady the ship – and chart the way forward.


There are many causes of the global pushback against human rights. Those responsible for human rights – people like me – must shoulder some of the blame.

There are others, but here are four serious missteps.

One, human rights talk has become excessively legalistic and often divorced from everyday lives.

Two, they are understood as placing responsibilities on governments, whereas human rights also place responsibilities on individuals and communities.

Three, human rights are mainly associated with combatting discrimination. This struggle is of huge importance and, in the Human Rights Commission, most of our work is devoted to fighting discrimination. But human rights are not only about discrimination, they are also about improving the lives of everyone. 

Four, human rights are usually understood as committing governments not to do things, such as not to discriminate. They are not usually understood as helping governments take positive action, for example, designing and implementing a policy that ensures everyone has a decent home. This misunderstanding severely diminishes the role of human rights.

If we wish to engage with the alienated supporters of “strongmen”, as well as others who roll their eyes at the mention of human rights, what’s to be done? How do we resist the global pushback?

If human rights are to be implemented in a meaningful way, they must be placed within specific national contexts. In New Zealand, for example, human rights must be implemented within its unique socio-economic context, including Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

In this country, we must go back to the ‘three Rs’, which resonate deeply with Te Tiriti.


At the heart of human rights and Te Tiriti are respectful relationships between individuals and communities.

I often hear inspiring stories about our rich multiculturalism grounded in Te Tiriti. But I also hear about communities talking past each other.

We need to give more attention to thoughtful relationship-building between communities.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights confirms that individuals have “duties to the community”. Te Tiriti affirms “rights and duties of citizenship”.

Our response to COVID-19, such as social distancing and self-isolation, shows that most of us understand we have responsibilities to our communities. Most of us grasp that we have a responsibility not to discriminate on any of the prohibited grounds, such as disability, gender and sexual orientation.

We need to be much clearer that human rights not only grant entitlements but also place responsibilities on all of us.


Human rights are all about fairness and respect (manaakitanga).

They dignify individuals and empower communities.

In the United Nations, successive New Zealand governments have promised to advance civil, political, workers’, social and cultural rights, the right to a safe environment, and the rights of indigenous peoples.

This broad understanding of human rights reflects what humans value. It also chimes with Te Tiriti.

We must find ways of bringing these human rights home so they can improve the lives of everyone in New Zealand during these extremely challenging times.

A good place to start

The ‘three Rs’ are not the whole package. We also need to clarify what our values are (instinct is not enough) and build on the evidence of what works.

If we wish to resist the pushback against human rights, and improve lives, livelihoods, wellbeing and social inclusion, we must re-imagine human rights for the unique context of Aotearoa.

A good place to start is with the ‘three-Rs’ – whatever the complexion of our next government.

International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham

In focus

#EndSARS demonstrators killed while peacefully protesting against state brutality in Lagos, Nigeria

800px-Protest_against_the_Special_Anti-Robbery_Squad_(SARS)_in_Lagos,_NigeriaProtestors in Lagos came under fire from uniformed men this week as they joined thousands in demonstrations against police brutality. Witnesses described soldiers firing directly into the crowds of protestors, and Amnesty International tweeted that it had “received credible but disturbing evidence of excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protestors at Lekki toll gate in Lagos”. Lekki, a wealthy suburb of Lagos, has been the epicentre of protests against the abuses perpetrated by the government’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

SARS was set up in 1992 to combat rising crime, armed gangs and robberies in particular. For 3 decades, there have been accusations of corruption, violence and extrajudicial killings by the unit. Recent protests were sparked by a video emerging of a man being killed in the street by the squad. The Nigerian government has been promising to disband the squad for several years but did not do so until last week. Despite the unit being dissolved, protests continued against what is seen as a wider problem of government and police brutality. The President’s directive to dissolve SARS does little to satisfy the demands of protestors, because the squad’s officers are set to be redeployed, rather than brought to justice.

The Director of Amnesty International Nigeria said “We call on the Nigerian authorities to listen to the demands of their people  and promptly, thoroughly, impartially, effectively and transparently investigate all cases of human rights violations by the police, including the unlawful killings of the #EndSARS protestors”. UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said he was closely monitoring developments in Nigeria and called for “an end to reported police brutality and abuses”.

Other stories making the headlines around the world






Middle East

International Human Rights Weekly News Roundup

by Pauline Canham

In focus

Saudi Arabia’s bid to join Human Rights Council fails

China, Russia and Pakistan have been elected to the Human Rights Council for the next three years, while Saudi Arabia failed to win a seat in the 13th October vote, despite being the current chair of the G20.  A secret ballot in geographical areas decides the seats, with Asia Pacific the only contested region this time.  The UK and France were unopposed in their election to the council, representing Western Europe, and Russia and Ukraine were similarly unopposed for Eastern Europe.  Saudi Arabia lost out to Pakistan (who won the most votes for Asia), Uzbekistan, Nepal and China, though China’s share of the vote dropped by 20% compared to the last election in 2016.  China has come under widespread criticism for human rights abuses, most notably its treatment of the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang province, and brutality towards protestors in Hong Kong.

Saudi Arabia was the only country that competed unsuccessfully for the Asia Pacific seat that it last held in 2019.  The killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisoning of women’s rights advocates and the catastrophic war in Yemen, all policies of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, have been cited as reasons for the lack of support for the Kingdom this time.

There were 15 seats available, with the remaining seats going to Ivory Coast, Gabon, Malawi and Senegal for Africa, and Bolivia, Cuba and Mexico representing the Latin American region.  President Trump pulled the United States out of the Human Rights Council in 2018, accusing the UNHCR of giving seats to human rights abusers.  US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said that the US has pressed for reform of the council, but “those calls went unheeded”, adding that the elections on 13th October only validated their decision to withdraw.

Rights groups have expressed their concern about allowing the worst of human rights violators to join the council.  UN director at Human Rights Watch, Louis Charbonneau, said “Serial rights abuses should not be rewarded with seats on the Human Rights Council”.   The executive director of independent Geneva based human rights group, UN Watch, said “Electing these dictatorships as UN judges on human rights is like making a gang of arsonists into the fire brigade”.  


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Middle East