Paula Tesoriero: Human rights declaration as relevant as ever at 70

Paula Tesoriero: Human rights declaration as relevant as ever at 70

December 10, 2018

Three New Zealanders helped bring about the land mark Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 70 years ago, writes Acting Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paula Tesoriero.

Anniversaries often prompt reflection. The 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December is a useful moment to look at what we have achieved in terms of human rights – and what more we need to do.

New Zealand was one of the 48 states that proclaimed the Declaration at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in Paris, on 10 December 1948.

The Declaration, which includes 30 articles and a preamble, was worked on by representatives from around the world, including our Prime Minister Peter Fraser. Supporting Fraser were South Canterbury Hospital Board member and political activist, Ann Newlands, and a young lawyer and diplomat Colin Aikman, who was studying in London.

While the Declaration sets out fundamental human rights principles, it is not a treaty and doesn’t bind countries to adopt them. Instead, countries commit to implementing the broad set of rights contained in the Declaration by ratifying two treaties:

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – which includes the right to life; freedom of religion, speech and assembly; electoral rights; and the rights to due process and a fair trial

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) –which covers labour rights; and the rights to health, education and an adequate standard of living.

Together, the Declaration, the ICCPR and the ICESCR are referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights, which is the foundation of international human rights law. Our own New Zealand Bill of Rights Act does not fully reflect the International Bill of Human Rights. It does not contain all ICCPR rights (such as privacy and property rights) and none of the ICESCR rights.

Later this week, I will be presenting a report on the status of human rights in New Zealand to representatives of UN member states in Geneva. This is part of the third five-yearly review by the UN of our human rights record–known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). In effect, I will be looking at how well we have lived up to the ideals we signed up to 70 years ago.

In my presentation, I will be able to report a great deal of positive change has occurred in New Zealand over the past five years:

  • equal pay advocates have achieved a game-changing settlement for aged care workers
  • other steps have been taken towards eliminating the gender pay gap, including the introduction of updated pay equity legislation
  • reforms to address family violence against women have been introduced
  • a Child Poverty Reduction Bill has been introduced
  • the Optional Protocol on Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been ratified
  • a fairer, more accessible and less discriminatory system is to be introduced for home-based carers.

This progress should be celebrated. However, there remains a lot to do.

Waiting lists for social housing have doubled in the past two years and continue to increase rapidly.

Rates of family violence and child abuse remain among the highest in the OECD.

Almost 30% of New Zealand children live in households whose income falls below the official poverty line.

Structural discrimination means a disproportionate number of Māori, Pacific people, women, migrants, refugees, members of the Rainbow community and disabled people face socio-economic disparities, and barriers to accessing services.

These are human rights issues that affect the way people live. To start addressing them, the Commission believes New Zealand needs to:

  • bring our human rights legislation and policy into line with our international human rights obligations
  • elevate the Treaty of Waitangi to its rightful status at the centre of New Zealand’s constitution

By doing this we will ensure that as we tackle homelessness, poverty, domestic violence, discrimination, and barriers to education and employment, we do so in a way that affirms the dignity of each person–rather than seeing as problems those people whose rights are not being honoured.

The Declaration is a product of its time. The people who created it were working in the shadow of a world war while facing the threat of a Cold War. But because the work of securing full human rights continues, the Declaration is as relevant today as it ever has been.

For more information on the Declaration visit:

This first appeared in the NZ Herald.