Mapp Report - Why Professor Stavenhagen is wrong

Published: Fri 25 Nov 2005 11:34 AM
The Mapp Report - Why Professor Stavenhagen is wrong
It appears that Professor Stavenhagen, on behalf of the UN Human Rights Commission, has already made up his mind about the desirability of "one law for all", as the foundation of our democracy. He does so after hearing only one side of a debate, and without seeming to understand that he attacks the most important principle of democratic societies.
It is ironic that the UN, which is so important in affirming the role of international law to avoid both anarchy and hegemony, gives paragons of human rights such as Libya and Iran, the scope to launch uninformed attacks on countries with considerably better human rights records.
Many of the votes in the United Nations General Assembly amount to little more than generalised assaults upon western nations. All too often the most longstanding democracies are under attack by countries that have little knowledge of democratic ideals and the rule of law.
The reality is that it is the longstanding democracies which are most deeply attached to the rule of law, and where dissent is acknowledged as an inherent part of democratic debate. When Professor Stavenhagen says "one law for all" is a recipe for making race relations worse, all he has done is show his lack of understanding of why democracies actually work.
The rule of law is the most important value of modern democracies. The reason is that it provides a predictable framework for human rights and property rights. Without law, citizens would be subject to the whims of dictators, unconstrained by an effective legal system. It is the law that provides real constraint on government, and which gives citizens the only enforceable power against government. The rule of law preceded universal suffrage, and is the essential foundation for our Parliament. Without law, the exercise of our democratic franchise would be little more than meaningless populism.
It is an essential ingredient of nations founded on law, that the law be interpreted by an independent judiciary. Each citizen should be assured that they have equal access to the courts in the knowledge that the law will be applied equally to all. The "one law for all" does not discriminate against different people; instead it is the guarantee that every citizen will be treated equally and will have their causes and concerns heard by a judiciary which is independent of legislators or the Executive.
Professor Stavenhagen has perhaps not been properly informed that one of the principal goals of Maori in respect of the foreshore and seabed is that the law to be applied equally to them, so that their property claims would be heard. Their argument is that they simply wanted access to the courts to have their case heard. This is precisely why my colleague, Chris Finlayson, has suggested, in his maiden speech, a review of the foreshore and seabed legislation.
Professor Stavenhagen commits the errors of most social relativists. He sees people with different cultures, and social and economic disparity, and concludes the solution lies in changing the fundamental principles of democratic societies. He equates equality before the law with homogeneity and assimilation. Colin James has recently described this syndrome as the one culture country. No one in New Zealand seriously believes that contemporary New Zealand is a one-culture country.
The last 30 years has seen a remarkable resurgence of Maori culture, language and business innovation. Our everyday life routinely incorporates Maori language and culture. Overseas visitors now have to ask what we mean in our ordinary conversation, because they simply don't know what we mean when we ask, "How is the whanau?"
It is surely a strength of our country that we can have a robust debate on the role of the Treaty and the balance between public rights and private rights on the foreshore. Virtually no other country in the world can make the claim that no one has died as a result of racial conflict for well over 100 years. Yet we have the UN investigating our country, telling us how we should fundamentally change our democracy to suit some sort of UN idealised model.
There is a simple answer to Professor Stavenhagen. Successful democracies stand on the foundation of a single law that unifies everyone. This principle enables true equality. It does not imply our cultural inheritance should be homogenised. Self-evidently this is not the case in New Zealand.
Perhaps Professor Stavenhagen would do better to look at the successes of New Zealand, and how our lessons can act as a model for other nations, who have much greater challenges than we do in bringing people together.

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