Julianne Evans discusses the various ways in which indigenous oppression can be stopped with Fulbright Scholar Dr Andrew Erueti. Erueti spent four years working for Amnesty International as an indigenous rights advisor.

When the richest one percent now own half of the planet’s wealth, (according to a 2017 Credit Suisse report), we’ve created a shockingly unequal world, especially for people struggling to achieve basic human rights. But despite the grim headlines there’s encouraging news, believes 2018 Fulbright Scholar Dr Andrew Erueti, a Māori land law and indigenous rights expert.

He describes himself as “cynical but hopeful”. “I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on the progress that’s been made on human rights. The situation in Egypt and Syria is dire. But in places like Tunisia for example, there’re new laws on violence against women, and a newly established truth and dignity commission. No one hears about that.”

Now on staff at the Auckland Law School, he spent four years (2009-2013) working for Amnesty International in London and Geneva as an adviser on indigenous rights. “It was an interesting time politically, there was the Arab Spring for example. I was working with other researchers and policy makers who all had different areas of speciality: gender, sexuality, LGBTI, refugees and migrants, poverty. We were there to document violations, prepare research, interview affected people around the world.”

He has focused on countries which are resource-rich and have uncertain land titles; and which in many cases, have no rule of law. “These countries often have extractive industries like private mining companies coming in from outside to run a concession and who hire private security who’re not answerable to anyone.”

Fighting for human rights can be a dangerous line of work. According to recent story in the Guardian Weekly, 300 human rights defenders died last year around the world. Working with activists trying to get their traditional lands back in the heavily militarised Chittagong Hill tracts of Bangladesh, Andrew saw this first hand.

“These are extremely brave people – they don’t get to jump on a plane and return to a safe country; they risk their lives campaigning for international support. Since the Bangladesh occupation, many have been abducted and murdered.” The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was drafted in Geneva in 1982 and completed in 2007, a 25-year mission.

Andrew says it took such a long time to be negotiated because indigenous advocates had an active role in its drafting and insisted it contain a right to self-determination. Other key articles concern economic progress, protection of culture and language, access to education and health, land rights and protection of the most vulnerable.

It was adopted by 144 states, with four votes against, one of which was New Zealand. We finally signed it in 2010. Andrew believes the declaration is a breakthrough for indigenous people globally. “It’s already had an impact in key New Zealand Supreme Court decisions and the reports of the Waitangi Tribunal.”

The first in his family to be university-educated Andrew grew up in the South Island, attended Canterbury University, and later Victoria, where he was on the law faculty. His father was part of an itinerant Māori workforce on big South Island projects. An area close to his heart is the issue of Treaty land claims, specifically his father’s Ngaruahine iwi (Taranaki region) claim, which he advised before the Waitangi Tribunal in relation to their claim to petroleum and in preparing for their negotiations with the government.

Settled two years ago for $70 million, the claim focused on the confiscation of the iwi’s land in the 1860s. And while the claims process is often viewed as long and fraught, the fact that we have a system at all should be celebrated, says Andrew. “People overseas were very interested in how we are managing that relationship. The New Zealand Treaty settlement process has featured some innovative breakthroughs; it was a combination of Māori and Pakeha agreeing from the beginning that there was a need to do something unique.

Another difference is the fact that Māori in this country are a big minority, around 15%, as opposed to Canada, for example, where the Aboriginal people only make up about 4%.” He says people have never seen historical rectification stretching back 170 years. “We’ve started something, achieved results.

I’m hopeful the new Government will deal more effectively than the previous one with issues like poverty, housing, urban setting, child welfare, criminal justice and child welfare in state care, where 60% of the kids are Māori; also the inquiries into the historical treatment of kids, living mistakes of the past.” Civil society, he believes, is watching to make sure these things happen.

“There are ways of looking at an issue in a human way. We all have kids, or many of us do, and this is a social justice issue, people must be held to account. And if they have no luck here, they can go to Geneva where there is a human rights framework that can monitor these different issues.”

For his Fulbright Scholarship, Andrew will spend three months later this year at the University of Boulder, Colorado, working alongside a world renowned expert on indigenous people’s rights, Professor James Anaya. While there, he plans to complete his latest book on the international indigenous rights movement.

indigenous people of the Americas and Australasia, excluding for example indigenous people of Asia and Africa. I argue for a broad application of the Declaration but one that recognises local differences – for example the importance of the right to self-determination for Māori in New Zealand.”

His work references the position of American political scientist Mark Lilla who has challenged the recent trend, particularly in universities, to focus on “identity” politics; be that race, gender or sexual orientation, at the expense of a shared political view that will translate into action and bring positive change for everyone.

“Lilla’s idea is that to really change things, we on the Left are better together, rather than fracturing into different identities which turn against each other. We need to reach out to one another to bring about the change we all want.”

This article was originally published in the March edition of UniNEWS and was republished with permission. 

Andrew Erueti is a Senior Lecturer in Law and Legal Pluralism at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in indigenous rights.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.