Anniversaries often prompt reflection. Today's 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a useful moment to look at what we have achieved in terms of human rights and what more we need to do.

New Zealand was one of the 48 states that proclaimed the Declaration at the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, on December 10, 1948. The declaration, which includes 30 articles and a preamble, was worked on by representatives from around the world, including our Prime Minister Peter Fraser.

Supporting Fraser were South Canterbury Hospital Board member and political activist, Ann Newlands, and a young lawyer and diplomat, Colin Aikman, who was studying in London.


While the declaration sets out fundamental principles, it doesn't bind countries to adopt them. Instead, countries commit to implementing the broad set of rights by ratifying two treaties: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The first covenant includes the right to life, freedom of religion, speech and assembly, electoral rights and the rights to due process and a fair trial. The second covenant covers labour rights; and the rights to health, education and an adequate standard of living.

Together, they are referred to as the International Bill of Human Rights, which is the foundation of international human rights law. Our own Bill of Rights Act does not fully reflect the International Bill of Human Rights. It does not contain all the civil and political rights (such as privacy and property rights) and none of the economic, social and cultural rights.

Later this week, I will be reporting to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on the status of human rights in New Zealand. In effect, I will be looking at how well we have lived up to the ideals we signed up to 70 years ago. In my presentation to the council, I will be able to report a great deal of positive change in New Zealand over the past five years.

Equal pay advocates have achieved a game-changing settlement for aged care workers. Other steps have been taken towards eliminating the gender pay gap, including the introduction of updated pay equity legislation.

Reforms to address family violence against women have been introduced.

A child poverty reduction bill has been introduced to Parliament.

The Optional Protocol on Rights of Persons with Disabilities has been ratified.


A fairer system is to be introduced for home-based carers.

This progress should be celebrated. However, there remains a lot to do. Waiting lists for social housing have doubled in the past two years. Rates of family violence and child abuse remain among the highest in the OECD. Almost 30 per cent of New Zealand children live in households whose income falls below the official poverty line. Structural discrimination means a disproportionate number of Māori, Pacific people, women, migrants, refugees, members of the Rainbow community and disabled people face barriers to accessing services.

To start addressing these issues, the Human Rights Commission believes New Zealand needs to bring our human rights legislation and policy into line with our international obligations and elevate the Treaty of Waitangi to its rightful status at the centre of New Zealand's constitution.

The people who created the declaration were working in the shadow of a world war while facing the threat of a cold war. But because the work of securing full human rights continues, the declaration is as relevant today as it ever has been.

Paula Tesoriero is Acting Chief Human Rights Commissioner.