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‘Empty seat’ since 2017

Urgency around need to appoint Indigenous Rights Commissioner.

Aotearoa's first and last Indigenous Rights Commissioner wants the role reinstated.

Former commissioner Karen Johansen (Rongowhakaata) advocated for the human rights of tangata whenua between 2008 and 2017.

But after serving the maximum two terms, she was not replaced.

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt said he had urged the Government to appoint an Indigenous Rights Commissioner to an “empty seat” since 2019.

“Nobody in Government is saying this is a bad idea. What they're saying is they don't have the money.

“It's extremely disappointing.”

Hunt said the appointment of an Indigenous Rights Commissioner was “urgent”.

A Government spokesperson said it was not on the “work programme”.

“Contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand requires a full time Race Relations Commissioner and a full time Indigenous Peoples Rights Commissioner,” Hunt said.

One Race Relations Commissioner responsible for all ethnic minority communities and tangata whenua was “out of date”, he said.

“It reflects our understanding of New Zealand in the 1960s and '70s.”

Hunt said it was not a criticism of Race Relations Commissioner, former Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon.

“What I'm criticising is the failure to appoint a fifth commissioner which I am not empowered to do.”

The Human Rights Commission is an Independent Crown agency with Commissioner appointments made by the Governor General on advice from the Government.

The Human Rights Act legislates for a chief commissioner and up to four others.

The Act specifies three “priority areas” that must be led by a commissioner — disability rights, equal employment opportunities and race relations.

Hunt understood the Act was changed in 2017 to replace part-time commissioners, of which Johansen was one, with one full-time commissioner.

He understood the National-led government took steps to fill the new fifth seat, but didn't manage to make an appointment before Labour won the 2017 election.

Foon supported the call for an Indigenous Rights Commissioner position, saying it was a fundamental right under the Treaty of Waitangi.

He currently shared the Indigenous Rights portfolio with Hunt because the Government hadn't appointed a Maori commissioner.

There are no Maori commissioners, he said.

Johansen said over the past four years, there had been a gap where a human rights voice representing tangata whenua should have been.

She highlighted the land occupation at Ihumatao, the local government debate on Maori wards, and even the stir when National Party leader Judith Collins wasn't allowed to speak at Waitangi earlier this year.

Johansen is calling for the Indigenous Rights Commissioner role to be written into legislation, believing it should be part of the Government's implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

“An Indigenous Rights Commissioner would be a critical independent voice in advocating for the rights of tangata whenua laid out in Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the founding human rights document of Aotearoa New Zealand.”

It follows Maori Development Minister Willie Jackson's July 1 announcement of the Government's next steps to meeting UNDRIP; first consulting with Maori and iwi, followed by broader engagement with the public.

The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007, but New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States voted against it.

The Labour Government at the time warned it was incompatible with New Zealand's constitutional and legal systems, but in 2010, the-then National government agreed to support the declaration.

As the declaration is legally non-binding, it cannot be monitored by the United Nations, however Johansen said it had “huge moral authority”.

“It is being used more and more to support arguments for equity, partnership and true engagement.”

“The declaration is enormously useful in helping us to work out how to make the Treaty work and benefit us all in 2021.”

A spokesman for Minister Jackson said it would be “inappropriate” for the Minister to comment during consultation about UNDRIP.

A Government spokesperson said it strongly encouraged all interested parties to take part in consultation process on UNDRIP.

ASKING FOR YEARS: Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt says he has been urging the Government to appoint an Indigenous Rights Commissioner to an 'empty seat' since 2019. File picture
Shared: Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon supports a call for an Indigenous Rights Commissioner, saying he currently shares the role with Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt. File picture
ONE AND ONLY: Former commissioner Karen Johansen (Rongowhakaata) advocated for the human rights of tangata whenua between 2008 and 2017. Picture by Alice Angeloni