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Why do Māori get involved with the United Nations? Reflections on 2017 Excursions


I have two feet. One in my indigenous world, and one in the wider world. But I have only one heart and that will always be with the people.

From Pablo Miss, past United Nations indigenous fellow from Belize


First off, the co-writers of this blog had never met until a 30 degree hot Saturday afternoon on July 7th in the middle of a Geneva carnival. Ironic that it took a meeting on the other side of the world for two people from neighbouring iwi/hapu or sub-tribes (Ngāti Hine and Ngāti Terino) to meet. But that is how it goes sometimes.

While Tui was in town for the Expert Meeting and Inter-sessional Seminar on Cultural Rights and the Protection of Cultural Heritage and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People 10th session (EMRIP) before flying to the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development Goals in New York, Papa was in Geneva for EMRIP. Okay, we have to apologise now for the long titles and acronyms but there is just no way around it!

Tui has had extensive involvement with the United Nations (UN), mostly in the indigenous biological diversity space, at times as a Pacific regional representative, and Papa has had some involvement with UN health and children’s rights meetings and committees.

To some, UN participation may seem without teeth, or removed from the local community. We beg to differ. We have both seen outcomes of Māori involvement and have a sense of the potential of the global forum to amplify the inherent rights of Māori, and more generally, indigenous peoples as a whole. And it is a forum that Māori have had involvement with for some time.

In fact Māori involvement at the UN stretches back 92 years (as Chief Willie Littlechild pointed out in his address to the EMRIP in July this year) when T.W Ratana travelled to this region to have an audience with the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations. He was denied at that time as was Chief Deskaheh from Haudenosaunee (Cayuga) two years earlier.

Things have changed however since then due to some strong advocacy work by indigenous peoples which culminated in the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration) in 2007. One outcome of this is space for indigenous voices and weight given to indigenous rights.

Māori have stepped into this space with the likes of the Iwi Leaders Forum, the Māori Women’s Welfare League and several passionate Māori land rights and human rights defenders participating in various forums over the years. In 2016 Dr Claire Charters (Ngāti Whakaue, Tuwharetoa, Ngāpuhi, Tainui) was appointed by the President of the UN General Assembly to advise him on enhancing indigenous peoples' participation in the UN.

Additionally, one important mechanism, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous People, had its mandate strengthened last year to include a focus on providing the Human Rights Council with expertise and advice on the rights of indigenous peoples as set out in the Declaration, and to assist Member States in achieving the ends of the Declaration through the promotion, protection and fulfillment of the rights of indigenous peoples.

Tui has seen real outcomes for indigenous peoples as a result of her involvement with the UN including capacity building workshops she has contributed to as a resource person in Asia and the Pacific on asserting indigenous rights and monitoring state implementation of UN conventions.

Papa has seen real impacts of Māori involvement in the UN for the health and social sectors. Māori submitted on and attended the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) New Zealand review in 2016 as part of the government delegation as well as the NGO delegation. As a result, there was a stronger focus at the meeting on the impact of national child policy and legislation on health and social outcomes of tamariki Māori (Māori children). Subsequently the UNCRC concluding observations had more focus than previous years on the rights of tamariki Māori and these were discussed extensively, and informed debate in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Our involvement at EMRIP this July was significant for the opportunity it provided to hone our diplomacy skills, to understand the depth of the mechanism and its relationship to other key UN forums and to learn the tikanga (customs) of putting forward EMRIP statements and informing its future work. It was important also for its reflection on ten years of the Declaration on the rights of indigenous people and, as Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples pointed out, how nation states have responded to this and in some cases included this in national legislation or policy.

So why should Māori get involved?

Firstly, as we have pointed out above, the UN provides an important and significant opportunity to have direct and real indigenous influence on global and in turn national policy and legislation that impacts Māori. Whether that be the rights of tamariki Māori, self determination, the rights of Māori women, health policy, climate justice or something else.

Secondly, this forum builds leadership and advocacy skills and knowledge. Global level participation strengthens understanding of international mechanisms and the tools to be more effective in indigenous advocacy.

Thirdly, there is real solidarity and strength among indigenous peoples at global meet-ups. We know other indigenous peoples are experiencing struggles, articulating their self-determination and responding in ways that are not dissimilar to us but it is not until you share stories and custom in the flesh that the depth of what it means to be connected as indigenous brothers and sisters comes alive. This also provides the chance for us to network, to share solutions and move forward together as a powerful global indigenous collective.

Now that we are back in Aotearoa New Zealand we want to build on the momentum and coordination of Māori-UN engagement. We want to encourage a whole generation of young people to get involved, to continue to shape global policy along indigenous lines, to continue the long legacy of Māori involvement at the global level, because without a doubt, local level concerns and global policy are intertwined. Let indigenous people be at the forefront of both.


Titiro atu ki te taumata o te moana, takiri ko te ata

Look beyond the horizon, to the transfiguration of the future

(Te Ruki Kawiti)


Papatuanuku Nahi (Ngāpuhi nui tonu) is Co-Director at Awa Associates

Te Tui Shortland (Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Raukawa ki te tonga) is Director of Te Kopu Pacific Indigenous & Local Knowledge Centre of Distinction. Te Kopu will be hosting a UN Pacific Regional meeting in October.


Papatuanuku Nahi would like to acknowledge the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples for the opportunity to attend the EMRIP 10th Session this year. For more on the Voluntary Fund see

For the advance unedited annual report of the EMRIP 10th Session, see

For the statement on the anniversary of the Declaration given at EMRIP by Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, see

For more information on the UN Indigenous Fellowship Programme, see

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