Indigenous Rights

Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
A Statement from the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference 10 December 2008

The Church will support the cause of all indigenous peoples who seek a just and equitable recognition of their identity and their rights.

Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia in Oceania, 2001

Today we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, a day Pope John Paul II called a "true milestone on the path of humanity's moral progress". The recognition of human rights in the Declaration followed the horrors of World War II.

Catholic respect for human rights is based on the understanding that all rights and responsibilities are founded in the dignity that belongs to every human being because we are created by God. We acknowledge that human rights can only be recognised, they cannot be conferred or taken away. They are inherent in our nature as God's creation.

Much progress has been made in the past 60 years towards respecting human rights, but there are still many areas of work that need to be undertaken.

One remains the need to better recognise and respect the human rights of the 370 million members of the human family who are indigenous peoples' the first inhabitants of nations. Internationally, this group has been subject to centuries of dispossession and violence, still reflected in their disadvantaged position in many societies of the world. Our own nation of Aotearoa New Zealand of course shares that history and we must be part of the work of reconciliation and restoration.

The Church may have initially been slow to recognise the injustices caused to indigenous peoples as part of colonisation, but Catholic social teaching on the rights of indigenous people is now clear and unequivocal. Ecclesia in Oceania, specifically written for our region, asked for forgiveness for times the Church had been a party to injustices done to indigenous peoples in Oceania, and expressed the support of the regional Bishops for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In statements on the Treaty of Waitangi (1990 and 1995) and Indigenous Peoples (1993), we have affirmed the Church's commitment to work to resolve historic injustices and to reconcile peoples.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September last year. This is a particular application of universally recognised human rights to the situations of indigenous peoples.

New Zealand is one of four settler nations who voted against the adoption of the Declaration. Alongside the United States, Canada and Australia - countries with very similar colonial histories to our own - our representatives allowed domestic politics to override our country's usually principled stand on human rights issues.

There may be a temptation for members of the Church in New Zealand to see this primarily or only as a Maori issue. However, the experience of the Church is universal, and through the work of New Zealand Church agencies - from the international development work of Caritas, to the volunteer service of Mahitahi, to the experience of those in Mission outreach - we have personal experience of the importance of recognising the rights of indigenous peoples throughout our region and the world.

On this day of celebrating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, we call on the government to enhance our country's proud record of leadership in human rights by supporting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

+ Denis Browne
Bishop of Hamilton
President, NZCBC

+ John Dew
Archbishop of Wellington
Secretary, NZCBC

+ Colin Campbell
Bishop of Dunedin

+ Peter Cullinane
Bishop of Palmerston North

+ Patrick Dunn
Bishop of Auckland

+ Barry Jones
Bishop of Christchurch

+ Robin Leamy
Bishop Assistant in Auckland