In the past sixty years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the General Assembly of the United Nations has achieved a great deal.
There is a good understanding of the concept of human rights. There is now a greater understanding that human rights help achieve development and security. There is also awareness among governments that human rights standards are an important benchmark for their actions towards their own people and those of other states. The political risks for states in violating human rights have become more visible and less easy to ignore.
Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations has negotiated comprehensive human rights treaties, and many of these have achieved universal ratification. New Zealand chaired the negotiations leading to the adoption of the most recent human rights treaty, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. The entry into force of the Convention in May this year, and the unprecedented pace of signing and ratifying this treaty, demonstrate a commitment to human rights in all parts of the world and the continuing scope for consensus on emergent human rights issues.
The 2005 Summit reaffirmed human rights as one of the three pillars of the United Nations, and from this followed the establishment of the Human Rights Council. Mr Chairman, New Zealand wishes to see the Council live up to its mandate and reach its full potential - to respond quickly and effectively to human rights situations while promoting open, inclusive and meaningful dialogue and cooperation with concerned countries. We are standing for election to the Human Rights Council next year, and hope to be the first member on the body from the Pacific region.
New Zealand believes that the United Nations needs to return to basics on human rights. We cannot help but be concerned that too often the energies of delegations in this Committee are engaged in a backward-looking process of questioning and defending agreements which have been endorsed by UN member states, even when those agreements have been reached by consensus. This takes the focus and our collective resources away from the universal ratification and meaningful implementation of the core human rights treaties which must be our goal. This year New Zealand has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, without reservations.
We must also reaffirm all of the UN’s major summit outcomes on human rights. These outcomes give us practical blueprints for the promotion of human rights. New Zealand supports the call of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to achieve a consensus on the critical challenge of racial discrimination. New Zealand will play its part to support that objective at the Durban Review Conference in April next year. Racism is a global scourge that requires our collective and urgent action.
The Secretary-General and the Special Rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council have again presented the General Assembly with a wide range of reports on the implementation of human rights and human rights questions on the UN agenda. We thank them for this important and difficult work.
These reports once more highlight that huge gaps remain between the endorsed standards and the practice of States in all regions of the world. Human rights are universal, indivisible, inter-related and inter-dependent. Further, the principle of non-discrimination extends to all human beings, irrespective of their race, gender or sexual orientation. Refusal to accept this common humanity opens the door to the violation of human rights and undermines the freedom and security of us all.
I would like to address two pressing human rights questions for New Zealand addressed in the reports before the General Assembly.
The most egregious form of legally-sanctioned violence is the death penalty. Last year New Zealand co-sponsored the General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. This represented a significant milestone in the quest for its eventual abolition. We welcome the Secretary-General’s report on the moratorium. The continuing use of the death penalty against juveniles is contrary to international law and deeply distressing to my government. Five countries continue to execute juvenile offenders, and have carried out 32 such executions in the past three years. We urge these states to take immediate steps to prohibit this practice by law, and while such steps are being made, to adopt a moratorium on all executions of juvenile offenders.
Second, an exclusive focus on civil and political rights has often concealed major human rights failures that require attention in the United Nations. An unfolding human rights tragedy is the high rate of maternal mortality and disability, with two million in Africa, South Asia and the Arab region alone. Some countries in the Pacific Islands region are among the worst affected. In spite of this grave situation, of all of the Millennium Development Goals, we have made least progress on MDG 5 on maternal mortality. New Zealand supports the active consideration of maternal mortality and human rights in the United Nations, including active support for emergency obstetric care, family planning and skilled birth attendance.
New Zealand welcomes the establishment of the Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review, which provides a useful mechanism to encourage all countries to improve their human rights situations. We are currently examining our own human rights performance in preparation for submitting our state report prior to participating in the UPR next year.
Earlier this year we were happy to assist the Kingdom of Tonga to prepare its UPR report. Tonga itself has made considerable progress on civil and political rights, in particular its commitment to devolution of power to a democratically elected government in 2010.
But elsewhere there are human rights situations where we believe urgent action is required.
Among the most concerning of these is in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Extrajudicial executions and torture are reported to be widespread, and there are severe restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of belief, expression, peaceful assembly, association and religion.
New Zealand reiterates its concern about the human rights situation in Myanmar, including forced labour, poor prison conditions and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. New Zealand calls for the immediate release of all political detainees to pave the way for meaningful dialogue involving all parties. New Zealand urges Myanmar to work closely with the United Nations in its efforts to secure a peaceful transition to democracy.
The conflict in Darfur continues to see human rights abuses on a gravely serious scale. Both state and non-state parties continue to breach international human rights and international humanitarian law in the targeting of civilians in the conflict. There is widespread absence of justice for many victims, and impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations, further undermining efforts to bring an end to the conflict. New Zealand urges the Sudanese Government to meet all of its obligations under international law and to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur on the Sudan.
The announcement of a power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe has met with significant delay in its implementation. We call on all parties to honour their commitments under the agreement, and establish a government which reflects the will of the people of Zimbabwe as expressed in the elections of 29 March. In the meantime we also call on the current administration to ensure full, safe and unhindered access to humanitarian partners to address the food crisis in Zimbabwe. New Zealand is ready with international partners to engage with a new and genuinely representative Zimbabwean government that is committed to political reform, the welfare and human rights of the country’s citizens, and the rule of law.
While Israel and the Palestinian Authority are pursuing peace negotiations, the situation for much of the population of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and especially Gaza, remains dire. Israel’s ongoing blockade of Gaza, extension of the separation wall, dispossession of Palestinians, restrictions on essential movement, and military operations, have caused severe humanitarian hardship, and frustrated the exercise of fundamental human rights. Israel must abide by its legal commitments in this regard.
New Zealand is concerned about the human rights situation in Iran. Our concerns in particular include the execution of minors, punishment by stoning, restrictions on the right to freedom of religion, and discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.
New Zealand is concerned at the human rights situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan faces extreme security challenges, but these must not be allowed to justify continuing infringements of fundamental human rights, including access to justice, the right to due process and freedom of expression. Civilians are too often victims of armed force. New Zealand strongly supports the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and we are worried by reports that it has been forced to tone down its work and public statements because of the threatening political and security environment.
Finally, Mr Chairman,
In this 60th anniversary year, I would like to pay tribute to the extraordinary work by the many people who are committed to protecting human rights of the most vulnerable members of society: government and non-government actors, media, peace support personnel and staff of United Nations organisations. Protecting human rights leads to changes in attitudes and practices that make a lasting difference to people's lives. History has shown that respect for human rights creates stability within society and peace and security between nations. We have achieved much over 60 years through the resolutions, conventions and declarations we have passed, but there remains important work for us all if we are to truly realise the vision encompassed in the Universal Declaration.