21 September 2013
‘Education for Peace’ gathering, St Heliers Community Centre
Organised by the Universal Peace Federation; the Peace Foundation; and the United Nations Association of NZ
‘Commemorating Peace: A Human Rights Perspective’
Auckland Human Rights Lawyer, Author, and Commentator
Deputy-Chairperson, UNESCO (NZ) Sub-Commission on Communications
Tena koutou katoa kua huihui mai nei i tenei ra
I thank the organisers of today’s important gathering for their kind invitation to give a brief message from a human rights lawyer’s perspective.
As I see it, any meaningful pursuit of the ideals of peace, be it internationally, nationally or locally, has, of necessity, human rights implications.
The UN’s General Assembly has declared this day to be one ‘devoted to the strengthening of the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples’. The Assembly has invited us to ‘commemorate the day through education and public awareness on issues related to peace’.
The UN’s Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, in his ‘100-day countdown message’ for this year’s International Day of Peace, has stated that it ‘is not enough to teach children how to read, write and count. Education has to cultivate mutual respect for others and the world in which we live, and help people forge more just, inclusive and peaceful societies’.
That’s the challenge. How do we achieve a ‘more just, inclusive and peaceful’ society?
What role does the exercise of our fundamental human rights play in promoting that outcome?
Human rights law is a vast and complex field. Given today’s tight time constraints, I have chosen to make a few brief comments on just one of our fundamental human rights – the right to freedom of expression.
Some of you may regard aspects of its exercise as having the potential to promote discord rather than peace; for example, in the inciting of hostility towards particular people because of their race, colour, ethnic or national origins.
Others may see the right to freedom of expression as one of the fundamental components of a ‘just, inclusive and peaceful society’ (in the UN S-G’s words). That’s my perspective.
In the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, the fundamental human right to freedom of expression has two key components – the right to seek relevant information; and a right to impart information and ideas of any kind through any form of media (Article 19).
In my view, the right to seek relevant information links in closely with what the UN S-G was saying in his message for today’s commemoration – that it is ‘not enough to teach children how to read, write and count’.
To be the well-informed decision-makers of the future, children need much more than that. They need access to information and its analysis, together with the insights that flow as a consequence. Otherwise, how are the ‘ideals of peace’ to be strengthened, ‘both within and among all nations and peoples’?
To engage in a meaningful way in a particular peace issue, one first needs to be well-informed. Do you consider that you are well-informed?
Of course, some of you may say – just ‘Google it’. Well, that’s true to a degree. However, sorting the ‘wheat from the chaff’ (to use an expression from my down-country childhood), may still prove to be a challenge.
Forging ‘a more just, inclusive and peaceful society’ (to use Ban Ki-moon’s words), may include challenging the political status quo. Those truly committed to this cause may need to ‘breach the peace’ on occasions! In the S-G’s words for today’s commemoration, you may have to ‘fight for peace’!
‘Keeping the peace’ (the King’s or Queen’s peace, as it was once quaintly called), has often been used in the past to justify the upholding of the status quo.
People actively involved in challenging it, for example, in our country the suffragettes who campaigned so courageously for women to be given the vote; and the early trade unionists who did likewise on behalf of impoverished workers and their families; often suffered the indignities of arrest and prosecution (and sometimes even imprisonment). This was all in the quest for a ‘more, just, inclusive and peaceful society’.
Of course, more recently we have had the exploits of the “peace squadron”, during the protests on the Hauraki Gulf preceding our country becoming ‘nuclear free’. No doubt, many of its members were ‘breaching the peace’, maritime-wise.
In his message for today’s commemoration, the UN S-G refers specifically to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl, who campaigned so courageously for girls in her area to have an education.
Malala was clearly challenging her community’s status quo, as determined by the local Taliban; and came close to being murdered as a consequence. She was simply exercising peacefully the right to freedom of expression – a human right many in this society appear to take for granted.
Over the years I have spent short periods of time in various countries where any form of freedom of expression challenging the political status quo is largely absent from public discourse. Some appear ‘peaceful’ on the surface. There are no strident voices gracing the television screens; rather anything in the way of news feels distinctly like a series of government media releases. It always puts the shivers up me!
When you ‘scratch the surface’ of how these societies attempt to present themselves, you discover that they are anything but ‘peaceful’. There are simmering tensions among those denied a voice – tensions that you suspect may well boil over into public disorder at some stage. Look what has happened in the Middle East, following the ‘Arab Spring’!
In our society the right to freedom of expression is legally recognised as one of our fundamental civil rights in our Bill of Rights Act of 1990.
It makes clear, (as does the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute. Rather, it is subject to ‘such reasonable limits … as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society’ (to use the language of section 5 of our Bill of Rights).
Those ‘justifiable limitations’ include the laws relating to defamation, privacy, obscenity, inciting racial disharmony, and contempt of court.
For many people, the right to freedom of expression is something they cherish – as long as the views expressed publicly by others on any issue accord with their views. When that doesn’t happen, some start to feel uncomfortable.
However, as Noam Chomsky, the internationally-renown peace activist, reminds us; ‘if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all’.
Members of this audience are committed to the furtherance of peace – be it internationally, nationally, or locally. Yet, as some of you may have already discovered, finding a media outlet willing to give prominence to promoting a particular peace issue in a meaningful way, can be near to impossible.
On the other hand, political leaders and their ideological allies who ‘beat the war drums’, are often given generous, uncritical media coverage.
Why is it that our country – with its proud anti-nuclear tradition – has shown such a readiness this century to engage in ‘other people’s wars’ (to use Nicky Hager’s thought-provoking expression)? Did any informed public discussion precede that involvement?
No wonder many are cynical about whose interests the right to freedom of expression primarily serves. Is it largely those who control the news media in its various forms?
On the other hand, some would argue that the new forms of social media have led to greater opportunities for freedom of expression. I agree, but sometimes wonder whether in the area of peace-related issues, it has any real impact on our political decision-makers.
If we are truly committed to the furtherance of peace, and in particular, today’s theme, ‘education for peace’; we need to be willing to move outside of our ‘silos’ (aka our ‘comfort zones’ where like-minded folk inter-act); and attempt to engage where possible with those who still believe that actively engaging in hostilities is the best way to resolve conflicts.
A wide-ranging, informed public discussion is required as a matter of urgency. In this regard, the right to freedom of expression plays a vital role.
Auckland human rights lawyer, author and commentator
Tim is currently the Deputy-Chairperson of the UNESCO (NZ) Sub-Commission on Communications.
He is a former president of the Auckland Council for Civil Liberties, and a former chairperson of the Human Rights Foundation of Aotearoa / NZ Inc.