By Paul Gibson

When the United Nations was deliberating on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities my friend, disability rights activist Robert Martin, proudly spoke of his own intellectual disability.

With humility and courage he shared his story of institutional abuse, as well as the stories and dreams of his friends.

The UN diplomats listened, reflected and eventually recognised that the voices of disabled people with lived experience must be at the convention's forefront: Nothing about us, without us.

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A few weeks ago Robert spoke truth to power once more, this time on the steps of our Parliament where he joined other survivors of institutional state abuse in their call for a public inquiry and an apology.

Robert represents the underground movement of marginalised people whose activism became a global rights revolution and led to the development of one of the most significant pieces of international human rights law this century.

The disability convention has reached beyond the UN and given hope to the forgotten, abused and rights deprived people in the darkest corners of our global village.

Robert is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and the first person with an intellectual disability elected to the UN Committee on the Rights of persons with Disabilities. He is a great New Zealander.

As a baby Robert was taken from his family and placed in Levin's Kimberley Centre. There is overwhelming evidence that children belong and thrive in families, and because intellectually disabled children are even more vulnerable, the love and stability of their mum, dad, siblings, extended family and communities is crucial.

I believe an abusive culture existed whereby the state and professionals coerced families into believing services rather than families should prevail in disabled children's lives. New Zealand institutionalised children at three times the rate of similar countries.

Support to enable families to raise their disabled children at home was seldom presented as an option. Inside these institutions, as evidenced by this report, worse was to happen.

What we did to disabled children and their families was wrong. The abuse each child experienced in being taken from their family was frequently compounded by physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.

Most staff were not abusers, however some staff were and these people preyed on the vulnerable and voiceless, out of sight, out of mind.

A report we launch today, Institutions are places of Abuse, commissioned by the NZ Human Rights Commission and drafted by the Donald Beasley Institute, is based on the independent testimony of people who all cited physical and sexual abuse, even when such information was not being specifically sought.

The stories are both horrifying and heartbreaking: John and David were constantly fearful; Avis was tied to a bed; Mavis was made to feel a slave; Alison in prolonged seclusion drank her own urine, and another survivor was left so confused he passed what had been done to him on to another.

This abuse occurred during the same period as reports of abuse in psychiatric facilities documented in Te Āiotanga, the confidential forum report, and the Gallen Report into Lake Alice, and the Some Memories Never Fade report of the Confidential Listening and Assistance Service.

The latter focused on children's home and foster care abuse survivors where a disproportionate number of tamariki Māori were taken from whānau for little or no reason at all. These are all the stories of New Zealand's stolen generations.

To date, like most other survivors with learning disabilities, Robert has not received an apology nor compensation. People with learning disabilities and autism continually miss out.

Other government reports, such as To Have An Ordinary Life (2003) described the systemic neglect of their health as "disturbing". Fourteen years later this has yet to be remedied, and only last year we heard that 6-year-olds with autism were being secluded in dark school cupboards.

The Human Rights Commission's role includes to protect the rights of all New Zealanders and I would like to give assurances to disabled people and their families that we have learnt the lessons of the past and that systemic abuse is not ongoing and will never happen again. But without a thorough inquiry I cannot give that assurance.

When Kimberley closed, Robert and his friends had a minute's silence for those who died at the institution and who some believe are buried there in unmarked graves.

The Ruahine and Tararua, the wise old women mountains, now look down on the Kimberley site and see the development of an aged care facility.

If we are to learn from the past a new kind of vigilance is needed. If we don't listen to the voices of the affected and learn today, tomorrow we will be haunted by the ghosts of yesterday, it may be that many of us could end our days excluded, voiceless, abused, out of sight, out of mind.

Let's celebrate that a Kiwi with a learning disability has changed the world and been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Let's ensure there's the will and resources to address the issues of inclusion and exclusion that disabled New Zealanders face.

Let's honour our commitment to leave no one behind. Let's make sure this abuse can never happen again.

But first we have to have a formal inquiry, and learn from our past to guide our future. Only then can we "sorry" with honesty, sincerity and mana.

• Paul Gibson is New Zealand's Disability Rights Commissioner. His term ends tomorrow.