MYTH: The Treaty can’t be enforced because there are two different versions


 There are definitely conflicts in the two documents:

  • The Treaty in te reo (including its expression into English), and
  • the English version.

The Treaty in the Māori language was signed by Captain Hobson and over 500 Rangatira, over 40 of them at Waitangi on February 6th 1840.

The English version, only written after February 6th, was signed at Port Waikato/Manukau, where the discussion would have been of the content of the Māori text, but the English version was signed (by approximately 40 Rangatira).

When two documents conflict …

In international law where there is any ambiguity:

  • The contra proferentem principle applies, which means that a decision is made against the party that drafts the document, and
  • the indigenous language text takes preference.

In oral cultures such as Māori, verbal agreements take preference over what is written.

This means that for the Treaty of Waitangi the text in te reo takes precedence on all these counts.

In November 2014 the Waitangi Tribunal summarised their conclusions on the Nga Puhi claim (WAI 1040):

  • The rangatira who signed te Tiriti in February 1840 did not cede their sovereignty to Britain. That is, they did not cede authority to make and enforce law over their people or their territories.
  • The rangatira agreed to share power and authority with Britain. They agreed to the Governor having authority to control British subjects in New Zealand, and thereby keep the peace and protect Māori interests.
  • The rangatira consented to the treaty on the basis that they and the Governor were to be equals, though they were to have different roles and different spheres of influence. The detail of how this relationship would work in practice, especially where the Māori and European populations intermingled, remained to be negotiated over time on a case-by-case basis.
  • The rangatira agreed to enter into land transactions with the Crown, and the Crown promised to investigate pre-treaty land transactions and to return any land that had not been properly acquired from Māori.
  • The rangatira appear to have agreed that the Crown would protect them from any foreign threats and represent them in international affairs, where that was necessary.

Source: Treaty of Waitangi Questions & Answers, Network Waitangi 2018

See also:

The Waitangi Tribunal: a brief summary

Waitangi Tribunal

The Waitangi Tribunal was established by the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975.

It was set up to investigate claims of breaches of the Treaty from 1975 onwards and recommend compensation where evidence of breaches is sustained (so-called ‘Settlements’). In 1985 the Act was amended so that claims back to 1840 could be examined. The Government appoints the members of the Tribunal.


  • In most cases the Tribunal has the authority only to make recommendations to Parliament; it has no power to enforce settlements or decide on the amounts of settlements.
  • In some limited instances, it has the power to make “binding recommendations” for the return of certain lands to Māori ownership.
  • It must take into account both the so-called ‘English’ and Māori language texts of the Treaty in its deliberations.
  • It must not “create a further grievance in its attempt to right another”.
  • It can also hear urgent current claims, for example, the Tribunal made recommendations (although ignored) on the Seabed and Foreshore proposals before the legislation was introduced.
  • Claimants can bypass the Tribunal and negotiate directly with the Government’s Office of Treaty Settlements.
  • Parliament has the final approval by choosing whether or not to pass legislation to enact a settlement, and what that settlement will contain.

Fiscal Envelope
The controversial “fiscal envelope” policy of 1994 meant that an arbitrary limit of $1 billion was put on the total of all settlements by the Government – even before the evidence was heard. However this proved controversial and was quietly dropped.

Settlements with Iwi
Since 1999, government policy has been to negotiate settlements only with iwi, which excludes specific hapū and whānau claims; this policy has subsequently developed into a preference for negotiating only with “large natural groupings”, defined by the government over the wishes of Māori. Policies based on government definitions of who it will negotiate with, rather than seeking Māori input into the most appropriate social structures for resolving historical Treaty breaches, have been criticised and challenged by Māori, the Tribunal and others.

The Government is also facing criticism on many other fronts, including for adopting a blanket approach through the Office of Treaty Settlements, which also prefers to work regionally as opposed to addressing hapū-specific claims. The Crown’s right to choose with whom it will negotiate has interfered with traditional relationships between and within hapū, creating new problems. And claimant groups are required to restructure their organisations along legislated lines before the government will finalise any Treaty settlement, further disrupting traditional organisation and relationships. Most settlements amount to less than 2% of the current value of the assets taken. At the same time, claimants must agree to the terms as a full and final settlement.

The Tribunal has proved useful in some respects however; a major plus has been that hapū and individuals have at last been given a public hearing, and their evidence entered into the public record, so the ‘other’ side’s view of some contested historical events has been made accessible to the wider public, for example.

Source: Treaty of Waitangi Questions & Answers, Network Waitangi 2018