Key Points:

Sixty years ago, on Wednesday December 10, in the wake of the horrors of World War II, the Holocaust and the treatment of those whose countries were occupied, the world's nations gathered in Paris to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

While not a legally binding document, it was the first international expression of a set of common values drawn from diverse religions and cultures. It recognised the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family, as Article 1 states: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

New Zealand cannot claim it always meets its human rights standards, but our history reveals a growing commitment - with many setbacks - to making it possible for every New Zealander to exercise these rights and not merely hold them in the abstract.

The Treaty of Waitangi, 1840, New Zealand's founding document, could be called the country's first human rights law. It aimed to protect indigenous rights and to establish the principle of equality for all citizens.

In 1893 women won the right to vote, a human rights achievement for which New Zealand earned international acclaim. The Social Security Act of 1938, a direct response to the depression of the 1920s and 1930s, gave recognition of the right to a reasonable standard of living, to healthcare, and to protection when people, either through personal circumstances or misfortune, fell into poverty or illness.

It is not surprising then, that New Zealand has played a vital role in promoting human rights internationally. In 1948, Peter Fraser's Government sent Dr Colin Aikman, a young New Zealand lawyer then studying in London, as a member of the delegation to the United Nations considering the declaration in Paris.

When the declaration was adopted it fell to Aikman to speak on behalf of New Zealand. He emphasised a vision of human rights that reflected the country's experiences, arguing political and civil rights were incomplete without social and economic rights: the right to work, the right to a decent standard of living, the right to health and well-being, the right to security in the event of sickness, unemployment, widowhood and old age.

Aikman told the United Nations: "Experience in New Zealand has taught us that the assertion of the right of personal freedom is incomplete unless it is related to the social and economic rights of the common man. There can be no difference of opinion as to the tyranny of privation and want. There is no dictator more terrible than hunger."

New Zealand's distinctive approach to human rights has been shaped by its history. Maori determination to have the commitments in the Treaty recognised and fulfilled has been central to keeping human rights on the national agenda.

Over time, our model of citizenship has become more inclusive, a model that recognises human rights apply equally to everyone. Most recently that has extended to people with disabilities, to people of diverse sexualities and to children. It is worth noting that action on human rights has, at different times, been supported across the whole political spectrum.

Commitment to human rights in New Zealand was manifested in the establishment of the Human Rights Commission 30 years ago. The commission was one of the first national human rights institutions in the world, and later it was joined by the Privacy Commissioner, the Health and Disability Commissioner and the Office of the Children's Commissioner.

When New Zealand emphasised the importance of social and economic rights 60 years ago, it promoted a more comprehensive view of human rights than many nations. The economic and social rights that New Zealand pressed to be recognised in the Universal Declaration then remain the most urgent human rights issues for the country today.

This is evident in the abuse, violence and deprivation suffered by too many of our children and in the entrenched economic and social divisions between Maori and Pacific people and other New Zealanders. Poverty remains one of the most serious human rights issues facing us today. It is not only corrosive economically, but in a myriad of ways undermines the ability to live active, engaged lives of dignity.

New Zealanders' evolving understanding and protection of human rights has shaped our national identity and enhanced all of our lives. However, as with our "clean green" image, the challenge remains to make the rhetoric a reality.

Turbulence besets the 21st century, as it did in the last when the Universal Declaration came into being. The rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are as essential as they always have been to peace, security and sustainable development worldwide.

Sixty years on, New Zealanders can be proud of our historic and continuing efforts at home and internationally to ensure dignity and equality for all.

For more on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, visit www.hrc.co.nz
* Rosslyn Noonan is New Zealand's Chief Human Rights Commissioner.