The New Zealand public has consistently viewed the United Nations’ welfare function as equal to its responsibilities for the maintenance of peace and security. When the United Nations Charter was developed at San Francisco in 1945 Prime Minister Peter Fraser was instrumental in having the Economic and Social Council elevated to the status of a principal organ of the UN. A year earlier, Finance Minister Walter Nash chaired a conference in Philadelphia that redesigned the International Labour Organization. Leading educational administrator Clarence Beeby was closely involved in the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The New Zealand public saw these figures as leading internationalists.
Declarations and covenants
During the 1948 formulation of the seminal Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New Zealand insisted that economic, social and cultural rights were as important as civil and political rights. Two separate covenants on these rights were finally agreed in 1966, and New Zealand ratified the declaration in 1978. The UN provided the setting for negotiating these and subsequent rights covenants.
Covenants New Zealand has ratified include those on:
- outlawing slavery (1972)
- racial discrimination (1972)
- genocide (1978)
- discrimination against women (1984)
- torture (1989)
- the rights of the child (1993)
- the rights of disabled persons (2008).
Related domestic agencies that were set up included the Human Rights Commission, Office of the Race Relations Conciliator and the Commissioner for Children.
Women and indigenous rights
Major UN-sponsored international conferences on the rights of women (in 1975, 1980, 1985 and 1995) saw high-level political and non-governmental New Zealand representation. More contentious was New Zealand support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (adopted by the General Assembly in 2007). Government reservations regarding the declaration’s legal content were overcome for domestic political reasons when New Zealand signed it in New York in 2010.
Even more controversial was the clash between New Zealand’s international responsibilities to uphold human rights and the country’s fondness for sport. In the wake of the divisive 1981 rugby tour by the South African Springbok team, New Zealand was censured before the UN General Assembly. This decreased the country’s chances of gaining election to the Security Council.
New Zealand’s position on the Springbok tour contrasted with its generally progressive international posture on decolonisation. During the UN Charter’s formation, Prime Minister Peter Fraser chaired the trusteeship committee, which confirmed the principle of self-determination by non-self-governing territories. Accountability to the UN for orderly decolonisation was now established.
New Zealand was the one colonial power that supported a seminal 1960 UN General Assembly resolution urging the acceleration of decolonisation. As Western Samoa moved to statehood (completed in 1962), and the Cook Islands and Niue to full internal self-government in free association with New Zealand (1965 and 1974), New Zealand followed UN processes.
Multilateral discussions on decolonisation were closely watched. When Peter Fraser visited Western Samoa in 1944, Tupua Tamasese Mea’ole, a paramount chief speaking for the three royal families, told him that self-government was ‘the main point that you had in the charter in the conference that took place on the sea between the Prime Minister of England … and the President of the United States … we have learnt about this and it has been confirmed by you, Sir, in the Parliament of New Zealand’.1
In 2011 Tokelau remained a non-self-governing territory. In UN-monitored referenda in 2003 and 2007 it failed to reach the self-stipulated two-thirds majority required for a change in status to self-government in free association with New Zealand.
New Zealand contribution
The UN’s specialised agencies, including those focusing on health, welfare, development, food and agriculture, and promoting human rights and equality, have had regular interaction with New Zealand. Officials, professionals and non-governmental representatives have served with distinction in these areas.