`A VERY SPECIAL MOMENT IN HISTORY': New Zealand's Role in the Evolution of International Human Rights

Article excerpt

Paul Gordon Lauren suggests that New Zealand exercised an influence far out of proportion to its size in the formative years of the United Nations.

The many festivities surrounding Human Rights Day 1998 will all be designed to mark an important historical milestone: the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Much attention will be given during these celebrations to the remarkable progress made in the evolution of international human rights since the end of the Second World War. There will be lectures, programmes, seminars, concerts, and many speeches by government leaders. Given the nature of politics, it is highly likely that the great powers will give themselves all credit for this development and will say little or nothing about New Zealand's contribution. Given the historical evidence, this will be not only a mistake but also an injustice. The reason for this is that at a particular moment in history, New Zealand played a most significant role in advancing the cause of international human rights and made a contribution that the world is still experiencing today.

For centuries of time, and in many different places, thoughtful men and women held visions of human rights. They dreamed of a world in which all people might be universally treated with dignity, receive equal treatment, and enjoy justice and certain basic rights simply by virtue of being members of the same human family. Yet, for most of history, these visions remained theoretical dreams rather than reflections of practical reality. Over the centuries, almost all of those who lived and died never knew the meaning nor the enjoyment of human rights. Instead, they found themselves facing one kind of abuse or another and confronting various forms of discrimination and patterns of dominance based upon gender, race, class or caste, religion, ethnicity, or some other form of difference that divided people from one another. Gender and racial prejudice, intolerance, segregation, torture, conquest, exploitation, and human bondage in serfdom or slavery tended to be the norm rather than the exception, sometimes made all the more acute by cases of genocide. Of particular importance, victims of these practices suffered under governments which confidently knew in advance that how they treated those under their control would be regarded as a matter exclusively within their own domestic jurisdiction and not at all subject to the scrutiny of other states. The practices, institutions, and laws of international affairs remained essentially silent on the matter of rights and precluded victims from ever having recourse to any assistance beyond their own borders. Thus, for all practical purposes and throughout most of history, international human rights did not even exist.

Determined opposition

New Zealand clearly fit this pattern. The country was well known for its opposition to any diminution of national sovereignty in general and, more specifically, to any international efforts that might seek to address such issues as patterns of white settlement, indigenous peoples, or Asian immigration. When the Japanese proposed that the world recognise the principle of the human right of racial equality at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, for example, Prime Minister William Massey unabashedly jumped into the fray. Having earlier campaigned on a pledge `to keep the country clear of coloured and undesirable immigrants',(1) he argued that the international community should have absolutely nothing to say either about human rights or the norms of New Zealand behaviour. Although the proposal for racial equality received the support of the majority of representatives gathered at Paris, Massey was joined by the Australians, British, and Americans, who together killed it. He received praise from many quarters at home for his position, including an endorsement in the Otago Witness declaring:

   If there is one subject on which there is acute feeling . …