Human rights have many sources but the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the most important statement of those rights. The world 70 years ago was traumatised by the horrors of the Second World War; the tensions of the Cold War were fast developing; and countries such as India were shaking off the shackles of colonialism. It was remarkable, therefore, that the drafters of the UDHR were able to craft a statement on the rights everyone ought to have that was acceptable to all countries.

To a great extent this consensus was achieved by the UDHR’s drafters searching for a common ethical idea – they found it in respect for inherent human dignity. Human rights instruments, such as the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, can only be properly understood through the lens of human dignity. Likewise, the government of a country that claims it is a human rights state, as New Zealand does, must ensure respect for human dignity is never ignored in its law-making.                     

The Holocaust, Pol Pot’s Year Zero massacres and the Rwandan genocide depended on perpetrators denying the intrinsic human worth of the members of a demonised group of people. In a less dramatic way, we may, for example, portray prisoners as ‘others’ who do not deserve full recognition as people. But human rights are for everyone.

In the landmark South African case S v Makwanyane, the Constitutional Court decided the death sentence was incompatible with respect for human dignity. The judges did not condone the crime – Makwanyane had committed cold-blooded murder – but considered execution would treat him other than as a human being.

Intolerance of crime does not require a government to abandon human rights. Makwanyane was severely but proportionately punished, as those who commit serious crimes should be, but they should never be treated as less than human. Respecting human dignity in this way requires us to confront a possibly natural tendency to discriminate against those we consider different and to respond to our justified concerns about crime vengefully and disproportionately.              

In New Zealand, a genuine human rights culture has evolved without an entrenched Bill of Rights or a Supreme Court empowered to judicially review Acts of Parliament. This development is a credit to all branches of government, also to agencies, notably the Human Rights Commission, and NGOs. However, the absence of a Supreme Court that can make ultimate decisions on human rights means elected politicians are the final arbiter on unpopular issues a Supreme Court might otherwise decide. In Canada, for example, Parliament could appear tough on crime by withholding the vote from prisoners but the Supreme Court could strike the law down. The New Zealand arrangement may require Parliament to be bolder in promoting human rights because there is no superior court to effectively hold it to account.           

Respect for human dignity does not belong to a particular political party. The removal of prisoners’ right to vote was done under a National government but was not official policy. The luck of the ballot saw Paul Quinn, a one-term list MP, being able to take his Electoral (Disqualification of Convicted Prisoners) Amendment Bill before Parliament. Likewise, disrespect for human dignity does not belong to either the National or Labour parties. It should be remembered the old, three-year disqualification rule that the Labour-led government plans to reinstate is also incompatible with full respect for human rights, as decisions in Canada and the European Union have shown.

The New Zealand government has bound itself to the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights, which confirms that “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated”. It is understandable a party such as ACT will emphasise different human rights from the Greens, but respect for human dignity does not exclude any but the most extreme political views. And an ideological preference for some rights over others does not imply a cafeteria where government picks and chooses to respect the rights it likes. Whatever political party we support, either we respect human rights or we don’t.

Human rights provide a bulwark against populism, an important consideration in New Zealand, where one key constitutional principle is parliamentary sovereignty. The other key principle is the rule of law. The Nazi and apartheid regimes taught us that the rule of law is not just a matter of passing laws in a prescribed way – it must also include respect for human rights. All political parties should resist the temptation to demonise or make certain groups in society ‘the other’. Being tough on crime is fully compatible with observing human rights, it just requires more thought and imagination than a populist resort to state violence. Let’s put respect for human dignity before political point scoring.

Dr Jonathan Barrett is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Accounting and Commercial Law at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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