The former fighter pilot talks human rights and New Zealand’s hand in defining them.
WORDS MIKE RUDD / PHOTO SUPPLIED
On a recent walk across fields in Runnymede, near London, with my wife and friends, we came across 12 upright chairs arranged meeting-style. They were made of bronze and engraved with pictures, symbols and text in various languages. Hew Locke’s installation, The Jurors, examines the changing significance of the Magna Carta signed more than 800 years ago. Each chair depicts a different human rights issue for viewers to consider.
The Magna Carta was the first shot at creating human rights legislation. It held King John of England accountable to the rule of law, and covered law, liberty and the church. In particular, it enshrined the rights of the people to justice and a fair trial (hence the name The Jurors).
The Ballad of Reading Gaol describes the brutalising effect of the 19th century British prison system. It was written by Oscar Wilde when he was imprisoned for “homosexual offences”.
In 1781, 133 African slaves were thrown overboard from the British ship Zong. The owners made an insurance claim, initially upheld in court, for the loss of their human “cargo”.
Hollow boab trees in Australia were used by police in the 1890s as temporary prisons for Aboriginal people.
These are just a few examples of the key concepts examined on The Jurors’ chairs. From a distance, it looks innocuous and unimpressive, but I found the experience deeply thought-provoking. The chairs appear to await a gathering, and stand as an open invitation to sit and take a moment to reflect.
In terms of our human rights record, New Zealand is regarded as a front- runner in the modern world. In 1948, following the atrocities of World War II, the United Nations published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was hailed by the chair of the drafting committee, Eleanor Roosevelt, as “the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere”. Because New Zealand was one of the founding members of the United Nations, our then prime minister Peter Fraser played a key role in drafting the UDHR, and the rights remain New Zealand law through the Bill of Rights 1990 and the Human Rights Act 1993.
So, what are these human rights? They may not be in our thoughts on a daily basis, but if they weren’t properly defined and mandated, our lives would be much less just and fair – and in many cases downright intolerable. The New Zealand Human Rights Commission, Te Kāhui Tika Tangata, says human rights include the right to:
- life and liberty
- freedom of expression
- equality before the law
- be free from discrimination
- participate in culture
- an adequate standard of living an education.
There are many harrowing historical and contemporary examples of what happens when these rights aren’t respected. It’s unusual to find a news report that doesn’t include cases of domestic abuse, exploitation, human trafficking or discrimination issues.
New Zealand has a proud and positive record, including, in 1893, becoming the first country in the world to give women the vote. However, being a world leader doesn’t imply that there are never any transgressions. It does mean that human rights violations are actively looked out for, though, and when discovered are pursued and addressed positively. This is the standard to which I believe New Zealand is wholly committed.
The Jurors has given me an improved understanding of the importance of this topic and a great deal of respect for those who promote, defend and manage human rights matters. For me, this new awareness started with a walk in a field.