New Zealand’s decision to sign up to a UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people will have no practical effect on the country’s laws, the Prime Minister John Key says.

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New Zealand announced at the United Nations on Monday that it would sign the 2007 declaration on human rights, land and resources, reversing a decision taken by the previous government.

“When we read out our affirmation statement we made it quite clear that nothing in the statement supersedes our laws or our constitution,” Key told reporters in Wellington on Tuesday.

‘Aspirational goal’

Key said the declaration was “a non-binding aspirational goal” and would have no practical effect on the country’s laws.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully told Radio New Zealand the government had followed the lead of other countries in stating there were parts of the declaration which would not be implemented.

“This is the practice that’s been adopted by other countries that have recently adopted the declaration as well – it’s to adopt it in principle and then make it clear that there are some (aspects) of their national agenda that cause them to do things differently.”

Compensation cases pending

New Zealand officials said in 2007 that an article in the declaration giving indigenous people the right to own, develop or control their traditional lands could have potentially covered the whole of New Zealand.

The indigenous Maori lost most of their traditional lands through land sales or confiscations, and a settlement process to provide them compensation in some cases is continuing.

Maori people make up about 15 per cent of the mostly ethnic European population of 4.3 million. On average, they have poorer health, income and education, and higher rates of imprisonment than other citizens.

Maori Affairs Minister, Pita Sharples, travelled to the United Nations in New York to announce on Monday that New Zealand would sign the declaration.

Canada moving to sign treaty

When the declaration was adopted in 2007, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US were the only countries to vote against it.

Australia said last year it had reversed its decision and would endorse the declaration.

Tonya Gonnella Frichner, the North American representative on the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said Monday that Canada was also moving toward adopting the declaration and expressed hope that US President Barack Obama would keep his election campaign pledge to endorse it.