Historical Treaty Breaches Against Te Rohe Pōtae And The Importance Of The Waitangi Tribunal In New Zealand

On the 10th of September, the Waitangi Tribunal released a report highlighting treaty breaches by the Crown against the Te Rohe Pōtae, a Māori people in Taranaki and Waikato, New Zealand.

Several Te Rohe Pōtae leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, an agreement written by British representatives to establish absolute British sovereignty over New Zealand while guaranteeing Māori signers possession of land and rights as British subjects. Exacerbated by a lack of cultural understanding between the parties, the Māori translation of the treaty failed to adequately convey ideas of sovereignty, land ownership and treasured possessions. As a result, Māori leaders signed a document they did not fully understand, resulting in territorial disputes that culminated in the New Zealand Wars and the seizure of most Māori land by the end of the 19th Century. A Māori protest movement emerged in the 1970s, focused on land rights and the ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1975, the New Zealand government responded by passing the Treaty of Waitangi Act and establishing the Waitangi Tribunal to investigate treaty breaches.

The Tribunal report released thus far addresses 277 claims relating to Te Rohe Pōtae iwi. After the treaty, Te Rohe Pōtae Māori maintained self-governance until the 1880s, when Te Rohe Pōtae sought a guarantee of self-determination while the New Zealand government sought a railway that passed through Maori land. The Waitangi Tribunal found that the Crown representatives acted “with dishonest and misleading negotiation tactics and promises,” which they failed to fulfill. The Crown continued an aggressive policy of land purchases in the 1890s to cater to Pakeha (European) settlers. Between 1890 and 1905, more than 640,000 acres passed out of Māori ownership. The Waitangi Tribunal found that breaches of the treaty against Te Rohe Pōtae have resulted in “breakdowns in social and political relationships, land loss, and enormous social, economic and cultural prejudice, the impacts of which continue to this day.”

The Tribunal has recommended that the 1880 agreements between Te Rohe Pōtae and the Crown be taken into account along with the Treaty of Waitangi, and that legislation is put in place to recognize the autonomy and self-determination of Te Rohe Pōtae Māori.

“This is a hugely significant day,” said Keith Ikin, deputy chair of the primary claimant Maniapoto Māori Trust Board, “the impact of colonization upon our people in Maniapoto was devastating and the ways in which families sought to counter that impact was to keep a lot of that historical record to themselves.”

By compiling and documenting the stories that Te Rohe Pōtae Māori have kept with them through generations, the Waitangi Tribunal has opened them up for the public to see and address. “What those stories tell, according to the Tribunal, is the Crown’s significant breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, causing serious damage to Te Rohe Pōtae,” Keith Ikin said, “it said it destroyed the Māori community structure and led to enormous social, economic and cultural prejudice that continues to impact them today.”

Following the Waitangi Tribunal report, legislation should be put in place to provide Te Rohe Pōtae iwi with reparations for past treaty breaches. However, while the Waitangi Tribunal can investigate treaty breaches and make appropriate recommendations, these are not legally enforceable. The Tribunal seeks to investigate the truth of the matter, at which point it will negotiate with the government to settle claims. Ultimately, the New Zealand government has the final say in passing a law relating to land claims.

The New Zealand government and the Tribunal process have drawn criticism as a result. In April this year, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern in a report regarding Māori inequity in New Zealand. The UN committee recommended that the New Zealand government fully implement Waitangi Tribunal recommendations and develop a national strategy to follow all the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The committee announced that it was “concerned at the limited efforts to ensure meaningful participation of Māori in decision-making concerning laws that impact their rights, including land and water rights.”

In 2007, New Zealand was one of just four countries that opposed the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document aimed at affirming the rights of self-determination, protection of culture and land of indigenous peoples. After hard negotiations between the National Party and the Māori Party, the New Zealand government eventually endorsed the declaration while noting that it was not legally binding.

Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Andrew Little responded by affirming that Tribunal recommendations were taken very seriously: “the findings might not be binding but they are highly influential.” The Treaty of Waitangi retains a high moral and political standing in New Zealand, but no legal status. “When you look at the way government today conducts itself it is very much in acknowledgement of and respect of the Treaty of Waitangi and what it says,” Little continued.

The Treaty of Waitangi is a document of great constitutional significance to New Zealand, representing the creation of a new British colony and government there. It should, therefore, be bound to the constitution and treaty provisions should be respected under the law. Other former colonies have already instituted such policies. The United States recognizes treaties with indigenous peoples as supreme law, while Canadian common law aboriginal rights are protected by the 1982 Constitution Act. New Zealand must follow suit.

As the Treaty of Waitangi was written with discrepancies in translation between Pakeha and Māori parties, the issue of which document to implement remains problematic.

The New Zealand government should put in place laws that grant the Waitangi Tribunal recommendations greater authority. Andrew Little claims that their recommendations are given great weight in government, but not putting anything into law requiring the government to adhere to treaty recommendations means that the government lacks true accountability. A government more opposed to treaty settlements can choose to ignore injustices highlighted from New Zealand history with repercussion.

Continued treaty negotiations show that the New Zealand government is concerned about indigenous rights and making amends for past injustices. By appropriately funding and giving greater power to the Waitangi Tribunal, and by addressing the economic and social disparities that emerged from treaty breaches, New Zealand could stand as an example to other colonial nations. Imperial powers from Europe changed the world forever when they seized land and resources from indigenous peoples. Everyone must be able to reflect on the actions of their ancestors and confront past wrongdoings. Only then can we right wrongs that continue to echo through our societies today.