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Arguing From Silence - where art thou, HRC?

Fri 6 May 2005 In: Features

Rosslyn Noonan Is the Human Rights Commission failing to meet its obligations of protecting the GLBT community? Chief Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan answers criticisms over the HRC's recent lack of public visibility on gay issues. It's a five-year plan for taking action, and it all sounds very businesslike. The Human Rights Commission had no intention of blindly bulldozing its way to an Oz-style human rights utopia – time had to be set aside to pave that yellow brick road first, and so at the end of March its grand New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights was unleashed. But what is in it for the GLBT community, and more importantly, can we trust the Human Rights Commission to follow through on what it says it will do? In the months and years leading up to the passage of the Civil Union Act, New Zealand has witnessed an undeniable hardening of a social climate which had previously accepted the GLBT community, albeit begrudgingly. The Human Rights Act in 1993 outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, yet just over a decade on, the right of gays and lesbians to be free from discrimination is being called into question. The Human Rights Commission, set up in the wake of the Act's passage, has contributed little – if anything – to the public discourse on such matters. Why? A LOSS OF FOCUS? One of the reasons, says Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan, is because the HRC has limited resources, and all their efforts have been focussed on producing the Action Plan, which outlines priorities and outcomes right up until the year 2010. “In order to do a comprehensive but very reliable and robust review of human rights in New Zealand, we had to concentrate our resources on that,” she says. “We've now done that, and we're looking over the next twelve months at refocussing those resources so that there's a much greater engagement with the community in a variety of ways.” It could not be a better time for the Commission to come out of hibernation. One of the priorities in their Action Plan is “safety for all”, including taking “action to reduce deliberate harassment of ethnic and religious groups and gay, lesbian and transgender people.” However, another priority, the right to freedom from discrimination, doesn't address gays and lesbians at all, promising only to “inquire into discrimination experienced by transgender and intersex people.” Has the Commission lost its focus? The New Zealand Herald certainly thinks so. In an editorial last month, the newspaper said the commission were mistaking human rights for social welfare, and suggested the left-wing politics of the Commission's Labour-approved appointees were straying from liberal values into things like upholding the right of parents to refuse to pay school fees. “Human rights are typically rights that everyone can enjoy equally at no cost to others,” the newspaper wrote. “Society can recognise and uphold certain rights and freedoms because they can be applied equally to everyone; they do not require some people to be awarded rights at the expense of others.” If the Commission disagreed with the Herald, the public were none the wiser. No countering editorial from the HRC ever appeared, something that epitomises their dealings with the media over the past few years. Even when attacked directly, no response is given, so why should it be a surprise that there has been equal silence from them over their core business? Despite the dubious religious-conservative credentials of Garth George, the man who oversees the Herald's opinion pages, the paper does strive for balance in its editorials. Anti-gay voices over civil unions were countered by pro-gay ones, but none of these were from the HRC. A search of the Herald's website archive, which contains items as far back as 1998, finds only eight columns which mention the Human Rights Commission, and five of these are in a negative context, painting them as PC, toothless, or political sockpuppets. Why the lack of engagement? THE PROS AND CONS OF PUBLIC PROFILE "I don't think any of us spend a lot of time worrying about defending ourselves. What we're committed to is building an organisation whose work is seen to be based on rigorous research and analysis," Noonan says. "Sometimes there's a view in the community that it would be good to have the HRC say something that would ‘fix it'. And actually, that isn't how it works." Noonan says that often politicians and the media are just looking for a response. Recent attacks on the GLBT community are “very much a minority who are looking for attention, and giving them undue, extra attention by addressing them, as opposed to ignoring them, feeds their whole approach.” Ignore it and it will go away? “No, it's not my view that if we ignore it it will go away, it's my view that there are different ways of responding to it, and one way of responding to it is denouncing it publicly. That may make a contribution, or it may simply fuel the debate and encourage worse. You can become so preoccupied with the reactionary approach that you fail to do the often much harder work of building longer-term commitment and support in society generally for diversity.” How this can be achieved with little positive public profile is anyone's guess. Perhaps the Commission is so afraid of being labelled PC that it has simply pulled all its punches, and created a self-fulfilling prophecy? I venture that human rights are now associated primarily in the public's mind with “political correctness” and “social engineering” rather than equality and protection, but Noonan disagrees. Partially. “We do ask the public in a variety of ways about what human rights means to them, and concern about political correctness is one of the things that comes out, but it's not at the top of the list I can assure you.” But surely it shouldn't be on the list at all? In June 2000, a year before Noonan's appointment, her HRC predecessor Pamela Jeffries was quite outspoken about a full-page newspaper ad taken out by a religious group which denounced the Hero Parade, saying the Human Rights Act protected a wide range of groups from unlawful discrimination, including gays and lesbians. "Attempts to stir up ill feeling against any of those groups are destructive. Such behaviour is inconsistent with the spirit of a tolerant and inclusive society,” she said. "I am sure that fair-minded New Zealanders would know which they prefer." Last year, when United Future took out a more offensive nationwide ad campaign denouncing civil unions, using pictures of same-sex couples uniting and labelling it "silliness", the Commission said nothing. NO POLITICS THANKS, WE'RE THE HRC Noonan acknowledges that there is work to be done in rebuilding the Commission's media profile. “I'm very conscious about our need now to be out there on the front foot on critical issues, and being able to add value to the debate. I'm confident that's what we'll be doing over the next period. There is a role for engaging through the media.” However, Noonan has already set some boundaries for this planned media engagement. The line will be drawn at politics – the Commission will not respond to any attacks, even on the communities it is designed to protect, from political parties or politicians. “Responses to individual politician's speeches is not the most useful approach. We live in a democracy, and in fact, our democratic system is one of the elements that's necessary for respect of human rights. I think that the role of the HRC is not necessarily simply to act as a censor of what politicians are saying.” Unfortunately, the most vicious attacks on the GLBT community of late have been from the political arena. Noonan doesn't want to be seen as a censor of politicians, but have certain politicians managed to censor the Commission? When Noonan and several other left-leaning colleagues were appointed to their HRC roles in 2001, it provoked nothing less than a right-wing tantrum. “Such overt politicisation of what should be an independent office is unacceptable and sets a disturbing precedent,” said then-ACT leader Richard Prebble, feeling the government's consultation process over the appointments had been a fraud. Noonan's appointment was the jewel in the crown of what the Herald labelled a “glaringly left-wing Human Rights line-up.” New commissioners Warren Lindberg, Ella Henry and Michael Powles were all former Labour or Alliance party candidates, but Noonan denies that the Commission are a bunch of left-wing sockpuppets. “But if the Commission can be dismissed as representing one political point of view rather than another, that is something we need to consider,” she warns. “I think we've taken the view that, as a collective, attacking or speaking out against individual politicians is, generally speaking, not the most effective way to respond.” Even if harmful and misinformed rhetoric is being spread? “Politicians will push all sorts of boundaries, from all sorts of perspectives. The issue is, to build sufficient community understanding and support so that isn't a viable action for them. I am quite confident that the long-term approach that the Commission's taking will bear fruit. It might not bear fruit in the very short term, but it will have a longer term impact.” That's assuming, of course, that a human rights framework of thinking will be around in the long-term. Looking towards the United States, much progress has been made in recent years to roll back human rights for GLBT people, but Noonan refuses to acknowledge America's religious-right takeover as a sinister portent of New Zealand's future. “It would take us a long time to have a discussion about why the USA has ended up as it has, and I'm not sure I'd entirely agree that it's because of the absence of adequate responses. It's much more complicated than that.” In fact, Noonan doesn't even think the debate in New Zealand has been that one-sided. “I'm challenging that. I think that you're hearing and seeing, because momentarily they're newsworthy, [only] the very fundamentalist viewpoints coming through.” Does this mean that the Human Rights Commission has put so-called fundamentalists in the list of people it won't respond to either? Perhaps it does – the HRC has walked on eggshells around religious issues during Noonan's tenure as well. Herald columnist Brian Rudman noted in December that the Commission took over a year to respond to Progressive MP Matt Robson's complaint about the Christian parliamentary prayer, which he felt excluded non-Christians. When the Commission did reply, it was only to say that it couldn't do anything. Part of Noonan's response: "The human rights standards provide a sound basis against which to explore issues arising from the dynamic, evolving nature of societies in the 21st century and Parliament may choose to use them in determining its own procedures.” While acknowledging that public authorities should not be using religion in a manner that excluded those outside that religion, she didn't think reciting the parliamentary prayer – in which MPs pray that they run the country for the glory of Jesus Christ – fitted that category. “We need a much greater recognition that if we want our own human rights respected, then we have duties to respect the human rights of others, and to ensure that they are protected,” she told “The right to religion is a very fundamental right, so it's not a question of respecting religious points of view, but certainly recognising that people have a right to hold those religious views.” Is there any remaining basis on which the Human Rights Commission can achieve one of its core goals, to reduce deliberate harassment of GLBT people, without engaging with religious pressure groups and/or politicians in the public sphere? In terms of harassment, who else is left? Noonan feels the Commission's most important work is being done behind the scenes, working at a grass-roots level to change attitudes within the community. “The media is certainly incredibly important and significant, but it's not the only way, or necessarily the most effective way, to engage with different communities,” she says. The Commission says it's working to build schools as "human rights communities", and is engaged "in very intense work within diverse communities" provincially to challenge homophobic attitudes. "That's never going to be a headline, but in those communities, where those people we're working with have key roles, that's going to make a difference." Making a difference is what Noonan is concerned about, even if others don't agree with the methods the Commission has chosen to bring about those changes. She emphasises again that there will be more of a focus on public communications through the media in the coming months. We can only hope that it's not too late for a calm voice to be heard above the election-year shrieking. Chris Banks - 6th May 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Friday, 6th May 2005 - 12:00pm

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