Wednesday, 24 August 2011

action plan for human rights

so this is the speech i gave (or at least one of them) at the diversity forum on sunday. i don't think it will have the same impact in writing, without the inflections and emotions of the spoken word, but i wanted to have a record of it. i hadn't made any notes, so this is the best recollection of what i said.

bismillahir rahmanir rahim. naumai haere mai. i tene po. tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou ka toa.

i've been asked to give a community perspective on human rights. i'm going to start by talking to you about my day yesterday. it was a pretty mixed day. it stared well, with a special welcome for the muslim community at turangawaewae marae, as part of the coronation celebrations. it was a very meaningful and humbling experience.

in the afternoon, i went to do my grocery shopping at the mill st pak'n'save, which those of you from hamilton will know well. i was in the grocery section, and having finished getting some dates, pulled out to carry on. i was silly enough not to look behind me and almost bumped into the trolley of another shopper. he rolled his, gave a big sigh, and as he carried on, said "i hope you don't drive like that". anyone who knows me will know that i don't just let that kind of thing pass. so i said "i hope you'are rude like that everywhere you go" and carried on my way. he said something in return which i didn't hear except for the words "come to this country".

for my many sins, God has seen fit to punish me by giving me two daughters who are infinitely more wise and full of common sense than i am. the one who was with me at the time said to me when the incident was over (and it wasn't quite over yet), that i should have not responded to him at all. by responding to him, i was giving him the reaction he was looking for. moreover, i was fasting and i broke my fast by responding in the way i did.

she is absolutely right of course. but i can't not respond, i can't just let it go. there's something inside me that cannot just let a comment like that pass. so i said to him, in a loud voice that echoed through the fruit & vege section "this is MY country, you f***ing a**hole".

now some of you may find that language offensive. let me assure you that i find it much less offensive than the notion that i come "to" this country rather than coming "from" this country. i find it less offensive than someone telling me that i don't belong here, or that i am less of a nz'er than they are. i suspect my daughter hasn't had the experiences that i have because the country she was born into is much more diverse, and she is after all much younger than me. but i can say that having to put up with this kind of thing constantly has worn down my patience to the extent that i just can't let it go.

very recently i saw an ad on tv for a beer company - many of you may have seen it. it starts with a fat white guy lying on a couch watching tv. next to him is somekind of barrel type thing filled with beer and ice, which he can move with a remote control. he uses this control to send the barrel through the house, where it finally reaches a woman in the kitchen, on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. the tag line is something along the lines of "when she can't get to the fridge, bring the fridge to her", with the man yelling out at her to get him a beer.

i couldn't sleep the night after watching this ad. i'm a trustee of the hamilton ethnic women's centre (shama), where we provide services for women who suffer from domestic violence. it isn't any kind of joke, there is nothing funny about what these women suffer. this advertisement, as with so many that are run by alcohol companies, are hugely negative in the messages they give about women - either as sex objects, as stupid or as this one is.

the complaints process is such that any person who complains has there name in the public arena, but in order for the advertising standards authority to make a ruling, they have to agree to make no statements in the media. the party who has made the ads has no such restrictions and is free to denigrate the complainant publicly, telling the world that such a person is uptight, can't take a joke, or any other narrative they wish to run. advertising companies are often actively seeking a complaint because they know the penalties are minimal and the free publicity is huge.

we were promised, when alcohol advertising was allowed, that there would be tight control over the ads. i see no evidence of any type of control whatsoever. these ads are not just demeaning women, they are hugely insulting to men, implying that men are unevolved neanderthals who can't see women as anything but sexual objects.

then we have the jock psychiatrist who has access to prime time television, where he tells us that adolescence is a mental illness, a disease. and we allow this to happen, we allow our young people to be treated with such disrespect. in a country that has one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world, how must it feel for our young people to hear themselves denigrated and laughted at in this way? how can they possibly feel connected to a society that shows clearly that it cares little about them.

i feel hugely angry at this narrative, on behalf of my own teenage daughters who are extremely sensible. as are all their friends that i've had the opportunity to meet. this country is full of lovely young people, but how often do they get to hear that about themselves? and this stuff doesn't just happen in a vacuum. it is precisely because we allow such disrespect of our young people that we can even consider the notion of paying them less even when they are doing exactly the same work as an adult. it is the same reason that we can have discussions about benefit cards for some of the most vulnerable young people in this country - these are the youth who are unable to live with their families because of abuse or other disfunction.

earlier this year, a white norwegian man committed an appalling crime, which i'm sure you are all familiar with. if you listen to the narratives about this young man - that he was "crazy", a "madman", completely insane - you see how hugely damaging this is to people who live with mental illness. these are another group that face significant marginalisation in our society, and to link that crime to mental illness without any shred of evidence is hugely damaging to their attempts to shake off the stigma attached to mental illness. the fact is that those with mental illnesses are no more likely to commit acts of violence that any other group in society.

this is the reality for so many people who have to live daily with discrimination and marginalisation. the only way to improve their situation is by a co-ordinated effort across governement. i'm an accountant so have a management background, and one of the first things we learnt in our courses was that if you don't know where you're going then any road will take you there. planning is essential to change the human rights culture in this country, and it requires commitment from government, from ministers, senior public servants and managers. a human rights approach has to be, as rosslyn says, a feature of every government department because each of them has an important role to play. we need an action plan for human rights and we need a commitment to carry it through.

change isn't going to come about via a complaints process, because complaining takes a lot of time and energy. with the number of incidents that i have to come across, i just don't have that energy, or the will to keep making complaints. it's too difficult. if significant change is going to happen, it has to come from the top - i don't think a bottom-down approach can be as effective.

i have just one last experience to share. in the last week, for an organisation i'm involved with, i happened to disagree on a particular matter with someone else. i laid out my concerns, and the response that i received was that i was too controlling and this was as a result of my involvement with the labour party. this isn't the first time that kind of comment was made. most of you will know that political affiliation is one of the grounds laid out in the human rights act. however, i'm unable to take forward a complaint to the human rights commission - i know because i've discussed it with them. i'm now in a position of having to choose to withdraw from the organisation or having the other person withdraw.

nz doesn't have a great record when it comes to human rights. we need action and we need a plan if this is to change.

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