Covid-19 checkpoints show the way for the role of iwi in the recovery

As we all get used to life at Covid-19 alert level two, we’ve been thinking about the success of the Iwi-led checkpoints in Taranaki, the East Coast and the Far North. Iwi set up checkpoints at these tribal boundaries to flatten the curve. They urgently responded to the threat of the virus by helping to contain its spread and by protecting their whānau and communities.

While the iwi checkpoints were hotly debated by some, the devastating effects of the 1918 influenza epidemic were top of mind for iwi who set up checkpoints – then, Māori died at seven times the rate of non-Māori. Coupled with the projections for the spread of Covid-19, iwi were very motivated to protect their communities. Just think of the coastal drive from Gisborne to Ōpōtiki and the low number of ambulances and hospital beds available should things get out-of-hand.

For us, the most powerful thing the checkpoints demonstrated was how Te Tiriti o Waitangi, reinforced by human rights, can work. The two treaty partners collaborated – with kāwanatanga, or governorship, represented through local councils, Civil Defence and the Police, and rangatiratanga, the authority of chiefs, upheld by hapū and iwi. This model of working together is one that the Human Rights Commission would like to see replicated.

Rangatiratanga: a fundamental human right

Rangatiratanga is a fundamental human right embedded in Te Tiriti, reinforced by the International Bill of Rights and the more recent United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which have been ratified or affirmed by New Zealand.

Rangatiratanga includes the authority to manage traditional territories, the right of self-determination for Māori so they can make decisions for themselves in their lands. The checkpoints give us hope that rangatiratanga will continue to be supported by local police and councils.

Iwi are exercising their tino rangatiratanga because, in their experience, relying on others has not worked well. In addition to the history of the 1918 epidemic, Māori communities were motivated to set up checkpoints because they have poorer health statistics and experience barriers to health services.

There were important aspects of tikanga (Māori customs) at play where Iwi members played a tūtei (lookout) role. They kept an eye on movements in and out of their communities, provided useful information to travellers, and collated data to contribute to the national effort. This shows manaakitanga or caring for visitors and kiatiakitanga, guardianship towards their communities. Checkpoints played an important monitoring role. In one morning a checkpoint in Pātea counted 500 vehicles on the road in breach of the Covid-19 alert level. Working with police and others, they enforced the rules and helped stop the spread of the virus.

This is a living example of the crucial provision in the International Bill of Rights which says that everyone has duties to their community. Human rights are not only about “I” and “me”, they are also about “we” and “us”.

Guidance from overseas

As the global pandemic took hold, the chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues urged world leaders to prioritise indigenous peoples in the response and to ensure they were able to participate in developing local solutions to the pandemic.

Taking this into account, the iwi checkpoints contributed to Aotearoa’s success (to date) in combating Covid-19. Within this framework we felt that the checkpoints respected the right of the public to freedom of movement while aligning with the public health needs of the country under Covid-19.

We’re moving on from the need for checkpoints, but the need for partnership with iwi leadership and rangatiratanga is stronger than ever. The police response to this issue, led primarily by the deputy commissioner, Wally Haumaha, modelled a Tiriti partnership reinforced by human rights. This relationship between rangatiratanga and kāwanatanga is ready to be used across all aspects of government during the recovery programme. The time has come.

This requires the kind of commitment and coordination that was demonstrated by iwi under Covid-19. Let’s make equity another key component so we all contribute to, and share equally, in the  recovery. Equity, equality and non-discrimination lie at the heart of human rights.

We encourage the government and all New Zealanders to continue to explore how a true Te Tiriti partnership, reinforced by human rights, can work and build this into our way of being. With true partnership we are all winners.

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