Re-imagining human rights for New Zealand

by Paul Hunt, University of Essex (UK); University of Waikato (New Zealand) By invitation, Thematic human rights issues

This article was first published in the Dominion Post on October 16 and re-published on the Human Rights Centre Blog of the University of Essex on 26 October 2020

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.


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