Iwi endorse Human Rights Commission Tiriti-Based Approach

Achieving authentic partnership with iwi is the ultimate goal of becoming a Te Tiriti o Waitangi based organisation. Lana Simmons-Donaldson explores one organisation’s partnership journey.

The Human Rights Commission has received rare endorsement from the National Iwi Chairs Forum to call itself a Tiriti-based organisation.

Professor Margaret Mutu (Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa, and Ngāti Whatua), Iwi Chairs Forum Pou Tikanga Chair, says the endorsement is built on a relationship of trust and respect that began just before the government signed up to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2010. The relationship was formalised in 2020 when Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt and Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon presented to the Forum.

“Support from the iwi chairs came without hesitation and was based on many years of working together,” says Mutu.

Mutu says the Human Rights Commission has every right to call themselves a Tiriti-based organisation. “There are other arms of the government who like to think they know a great deal about Te Tiriti and can deliver on it, but their legislation prevents them,” she says. “I’ve found those we have worked with in the commission have a good understanding of what the He Whakaputunga [Declaration of Independence] and Te Tiriti actually mean, and they have done a lot of work to bring the understanding of all of the commission up to speed.”

Empowering National Iwi Chairs

Mutu says the Human Rights Commission has empowered the National Iwi Chairs Forum to pursue its rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Convention and has specific knowledge of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how it’s applied through He Whakaputanga of 1835 and Te Tiriti o Waitangi. “The Commission has supported us with tools we needed to get international backing from the United Nations,” she says. “The most powerful thing has been the embarrassment of the New Zealand government in the United Nations for its lack of compliance with its human rights obligations, particularly under the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

As part of its work, representatives of the commission supported Mutu to go to Geneva in 2014 to get first-hand experience of the workings of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This led to the establishment of the Aotearoa Independent Monitoring Mechanism in 2015. Through this, the commission supported Mutu, as Chair of the mechanism, to draft reports to send to the UN Expert Mechanism to hold the New Zealand government to account on its international obligations.

Mutu acknowledges the commission for its support in setting up the Monitoring Mechanism. “They just supported us, researching specific issues and picking up particular articles within the declaration. That’s how it started; they just came and offered help.”

When Mutu went to Geneva in 2014, she sat with the Indigenous Rights Commissioner, Karen Johansen, who explained things as they were happening. “We were able to draw on the Human Rights Commission’s very detailed knowledge of the various conventions and instruments and the United Nations Treaty bodies, bringing them together to support the work we were doing.

“Their tautoko wasn’t a flash in the pan, and it wasn’t just from one person – there was a group of them. We knew they had the support of the rest of the commission,” says Mutu. “We got to the point where the kaimahi Māori in the commission had established a pretty good relationship with us.”

Mutu also acknowledges the commission’s input into the Matike Mai report released in 2016. “In keeping with their international human rights background, their approach is always diplomatic – they are always trying to find a way through by consensus rather than by confrontation.”

In 2017, Mutu asked Nanaia Mahuta, then Minister of Māori Development, whether she would look at implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “Nanaia said absolutely. She set up a working group to give a detailed report on doing that.” The report, He Puapua, was completed in November 2019 but was not released until February this year under the Official Information Act.

Mutu describes the report as a blueprint for government to strengthen rangatiratanga for Māori. Following the government’s agreement to pull together a national plan of action to implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UN’s Expert Mechanism came to New Zealand in 2019.

Advice for other government departments

Mutu’s advice to other government departments is to look to the Human Rights Commission as an example and to begin with goodwill and understanding. “Get rid of colonising attitudes that derive from the ‘doctrine of discovery’,” she says. “Government departments need to understand what the United Nations has put in place and bring themselves up to speed with their international obligations.”

Mutu says there is also a need for government departments to comprehend what He Whakaputunga means and what Te Tiriti o Waitangi means. “Really walk the talk – the need to decolonise our public service is long overdue.”

About the National Iwi Chairs Forum

The National Iwi Chairs Forum was established in 2005. It is made up of elected leaders or chairs of hapū and iwi from across Aotearoa. The Iwi Chairs Forum divides its work into five areas or pou:

  1. Pou Tikanga – Constitutional, Treaty Claims, Reo, and Tikanga
  2. Pou Tangata – Social Issues
  3. Pou Taiao – Environmental Issues
  4. Pou Tahua – Economic Issues
  5. Pou Take Āhuarangi – Climate Crisis.

Professor Margaret Mutu is Pou Tikanga chair, as well as chair of two working groups operating under the Pou Tikanga workstream: Matike Mai Aotearoa – the Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation – and the Aotearoa Independent Monitoring Mechanism that monitors the government’s compliance with the United National Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Key insights from the Human Rights Commission journey

The Human Rights Commission has demonstrated openness and commitment to change. They have thought deeply about Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and they took action based on the thinking and advice they received from iwi.

Five key insights:

  1. Allow time for partnership to develop.
  2. Establish, build, and maintain trust.
  3. Identify how your knowledge and expertise can support your Tiriti partner.
  4. Ask your partner what they want or need.