The death of Emma-Lita Bourne is not just a personal tragedy for the family: it is an event that should make New Zealand angry with the powerful people in our society who control the purse strings. They are responsible for condemning thousands of children to life-threatening conditions. And they are doing it in our name.
The reliable public health evidence is clear: poor housing conditions cause premature mortality. Our policy makers know that; those who decide on where public money should be spent know that; and yet too many of us simply shrug, express our heartfelt sympathies, and leave it at that. Well, we should be angry and we should be insistent on speedy change.
Inevitably, there will be the dog-whistle responses of those obsessed with personal responsibility: they will complain that fiscally poor parents should not have children if they cannot house them in a warm house. But that is missing the point: the focus of anger is the manifest failure of society to meet its collective responsibility to the children who are caught in these conditions. The children have no personal responsibility for their plight.
Politicians of the last few decades have presided over a significant increase in the wealth of the nation. As a result we have a very comfortable middle class. But a nation that harps on about its vanguard role in socially progressive developments in legal frameworks and its egalitarian ethos has become very unbalanced in its distribution of this considerable wealth. Those at the poorer ends of society have in fact gone backwards. Result: children die in mouldy and uncarpeted houses owned by us. Meanwhile our current finance minister insists that Housing New Zealand makes a profit for our Treasury. Well, we should be telling our finance minister that our priority is different.
It is time to recall one of the socially progressive developments where we were leaders rather than followers. New Zealand played a major role in ensuring coverage of economic and social rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This totemic document of the United Nations, designed as the blue-print for the rebuilding of societies destroyed by eugenic ideas that some people were of lesser worth, sets out in Article 25 that all people have the right to an adequate standard of living. It’s a right with a purpose: to allow people to provide for the health and well-being of themselves and their family.
New Zealand signed up to an international treaty that turned this into a binding legal obligation in 1978, when the Muldoon government made New Zealand a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Article 11 of this guarantees not only the adequate standard of living but the continuous improvement of living conditions. We have to use the maximum of available resources for this. This has been our obligation for almost 4 decades, so anger at the breach of the rights of children like Emma-Lita is necessary.
In fact, it isn’t just a matter of economic rights. It is actually a matter of the right to life. New Zealand is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is designed to make these rights part of our domestic law. So Parliament has accepted that they are binding on the executive. The state obligation is to take steps whenever it is aware that death is risked that can be avoided.
So our officials cannot just stand by. Safeguarding the many children like Emma-Lita Bourne is not just in the nice to have basket: it’s in the need to have basket. Any avoidable and entirely preventable death is an absolute tragedy. But when it reveals a situation which we have promised will not be allowed, we should damn well be angry about it. So how should we respond? Well how about we insist on being true to our obligations and, given our proud record of being at the forefront of social progress, true to our values.
Kris Gledhill is an academic lawyer in Auckland whose teaching includes international human rights law.
lprent: All of the links and images in this post were added by me to provide drill down to background material.