New Zealand's first Maori High Court judge, Sir Edward Taihakurei Durie, has suggested the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will find their way in time into New Zealand law, both statute law and judge-made law.
Sir Edward, now retired, sent a message of congratulations to the Maori Party yesterday.
The Government on Monday announced it would support the 46-article declaration, a reversal of the Labour Government's refusal to support it in 2007, one of four countries that voted against it.
Some articles are non-controversial, such as the right to practise cultural traditions and customs, but others are less so, such as the right to self-government and veto over legislation affecting them.
National agreed to back the declaration on the basis that it is an "aspirational" and non-binding declaration that would have no effect on New Zealand law or its constitutional framework.
Te Tai Tokerau MP Hone Harawira read parts of the email messages to the House in which Sir Edward compares support for the declaration to signing the Treaty of Waitangi.
"Notwithstanding the progress made through all the tribunal reports and court cases from the 1980s, and the consequential changes in legislation and official policy, I would still rank the day that New Zealand gave support to the declaration as the most significant day, in advancing Maori rights, since 6th February 1840," the letter said.
Sir Edward said he did not overlook the fact that the declaration had only moral force. The same was said of the Treaty of Waitangi.
But he added: "Important statements of principle established through international negotiation and acclamation filter into law in time, through both governments and the courts, which look constantly for universal statement of principle in developing policy or deciding cases."
Sir Edward said that were nothing else done during the Maori Party's lifetime, "this one thing would be enough to secure for it a treasured place in Maori history."
Maori Party co-leader and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples made a secret trip to New York to announce the decision, which had been taken by Cabinet on March 22.
Prime Minister John Key, when asked by a Maori Television reporter in Canada last week when and why the Government had decided to support the declaration, said:
"We haven't made an announcement and at least or until we do, [you] wouldn't necessarily count your chickens."
Mr Harawira and Dr Sharples had described the statement as "without caveat."
But the implicit caveat within the formal statement is the following:
"In moving to support the declaration, New Zealand both affirms those rights and reaffirms the legal and constitutional frameworks that underpin New Zealand's legal system.
"Those existing frameworks, while they continue to evolve in accordance with New Zealand's domestic circumstances, define the bounds of New Zealand's engagement with the aspirational elements of the declaration."
Wellington public law specialist Mai Chen said yesterday that the Government would have to account for its "action or inaction" in relation to the declaration to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where Dr Sharples had made his announcement.
She also said there appeared to be "quite a disparity" between the risks previously advised to the Government by Crown Law in 2007 and what was being advised now.
International declarations are often a first step towards binding conventions.
Meanwhile, the United States Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said yesterday the US would review its opposition to the declaration under President Barack Obama.