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Source: Human Rights Commission

By Paul Hunt, Chief Human Rights Commissioner

Whether we call it a housing or human rights crisis, there are three key messages we can already take from the Human Rights Commission’s new focus on the right to a decent home.

First, New Zealanders have not only been terribly let down by successive governments, but also by many others in positions of power.

For years, Parliament and its committees – the country’s apex accountability body – totally failed to hold governments to account for violating the right to a decent home.

Also, few public officials warned Ministers what was happening in the housing sector was in breach of governments’ legally binding international human rights obligations.

Sure, lawyers undertook tick-box human rights compliance checks on some housing initiatives. These tick-box checks are often useless because they come too late and usually fail to consider relevant international commitments. If public officials don’t advise government on international promises made to all of us, what’s the point of making these promises in the first place?

What about the media? Did they discharge their constitutional role and blow the whistle on systemic breaches of the right to a decent home?

With a few inspirational exceptions, the answer is ‘No’.

What about the Human Rights Commission? Over the years, have we been loud and brave enough on the national housing crisis?

I confess, no, we haven’t.

A failure of democracy

Second, the crisis is not just a human rights failure, it is a failure of our democracy.

Democracy is much more than holding periodic general elections, it’s a complex system including executive, legislature, judiciary, public service, media, and authentic community engagement.

One crucial component of an effective democracy is the adequate protection of everyone’s human rights.

It’s now understood that governments have signed up to, but largely ignored, the right of everyone to have a decent home. They’ve got away with this year after year.

In short, our democracy has failed the countless lives and communities blighted by the housing crisis.

Time to refresh human rights

Third, this abject human rights and democratic failure extends beyond the current crisis.

Proper consideration of the right to a decent home could have averted today’s housing crisis.

Also, proper consideration of other human rights can help to avert, or moderate, other avoidable national crises, such as mental health, care of older people, and climate justice.

Other countries grasp the constructive role of human rights. Canada is committed to a human rights-based housing strategy. The First Minister of Scotland has established a national taskforce on human rights. Nordic countries are wrestling with what they call the ‘domestic institutionalisation of human rights’.

In New Zealand, the most exciting human rights thinking lies at the intersection of human rights and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

The way forward is to implement human rights within our unique local and national context.

We must bring human rights home.

Recognise the values embodied in human rights, such as fairness, decency, freedom, equality, wellbeing, manaakitanga (respect), and kaitiakitanga (stewardship).

Whatever happens, don’t let lawyers take charge of human rights.

Instead, handover human rights to individuals, communities, and empathic policy makers who are equipped to ask, how can human rights enhance what our political leaders have asked us to do?

One simple step is to ensure each government agency has a few people who can help their colleagues fold human rights and Te Tiriti into their life-enhancing work.

Human rights enablers, not enforcers.

In these and other ways, we can begin to refresh human rights for our time and place: Aotearoa New Zealand.