'One law for all races' risky says expert

By Ruth Berry

The "one law for all" philosophy is a recipe for making race relations in New Zealand worse, says a United Nations human rights expert sent here to investigate.

Professor Rudolfo Stavenhagen is investigating the Foreshore and Seabed Act for the UN Human Rights Commission after the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination ruled the act discriminatory.

Professor Stavenhagen said ethnic and cultural diversity was a fact of life that "should not, that cannot be ignored" when it came to policy.

"When politicians play the race card it's not always for the best of objectives. It's a vote-getting ploy or it may hide special interests and so forth.

"There is a general debate, even in the human rights community and I've seen it in many countries, where ... even human rights defenders, say 'Well, let's not make a "difference" any more. So much harm has been done because of race-related issues.

"Let's simply say we're all citizens of this country and some are perhaps underprivileged or disadvantaged and let's have policies addressed to the poor or the needy or the homeless and so forth, regardless of what race or what ethnicity or what culture they come from'.

"Unfortunately, as we know, it doesn't work out that way because if there are disparities in health services and housing and employment and income and access to education, it's not because of ethnicity but because certain groups - indigenous peoples or racial or cultural minorities - have had a long history of having been the victims of discrimination or colonisation or oppression or apartheid or exploitation or segregation or whatever.

"And then saying 'Well, this is all over now so let's forget about the difference' is not really politically feasible and it's sociologically not correct because people demand rights quae [as] peoples particularly when they have been oppressed and excluded as peoples from mainstream society or from political participation."

The "one law for all" argument assumed the playing field was level, but "not everybody has the same opportunities at birth ... So if states do not take that into account when they formulate their policies I think things may actually tend to become worse, rather than better."

Professor Stavenhagen said he hoped the findings he made would carry weight, but said the UN only had the power to recommend, not enforce.

Each country had to resolve in its own way the human rights issues confronting it, but there were nevertheless international standards.

Asked if he was concerned about Prime Minister Helen Clark's dismissal of the committee as one which sat on "outer UN system", he said it was one of several major UN committees "right at the centre, at the core of human rights issues".

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