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NZ not "walking the talk" on human rights

10 April 2015

New Zealand’s impressive international image as a human rights leader is not matched by its implementation record at home, a major Law Foundation-backed study has found.

The study, led by Auckland University of Technology Professor Judy McGregor, finds that New Zealand falls short in promoting and monitoring our international human rights obligations.

“New Zealand is poor at promoting the human rights treaties domestically, and scant media coverage is paid to the United Nations reporting processes … This invisibility is affirmed and compounded by the absence of parliamentary scrutiny of international human rights treaty bodies,” the study says.

Despite our excellent international reputation, it says there are signs that human rights implementation domestically may be regressing in some areas, including health and disability law, the age of criminal responsibility, equal pay, Māori inequalities and prisoner voting rights.

Māori disadvantage is a particular problem area. The report says that despite repeated requests by international bodies, successive governments have not effectively addressed concerns about inequalities in health outcomes and disproportionate rates of incarceration, domestic violence and child poverty among Māori. While New Zealand’s reports to the UN describe new activities, there has been little analysis of whether they have worked.

The three-year report, released publicly earlier this month, makes several recommendations for better promoting and monitoring human rights.

Among them are making a single select committee responsible for human rights oversight, co-ordinating all government reports to treaty bodies through the Ministry of Justice, and maintaining a freely-accessible archive of treaty body information.

It also calls for reviews of relevant legislation, government promotion of international human rights obligations, and educating journalists on reporting human rights and the international treaty body system.

“We have been very good at signing and ratifying human rights treaties,” Dr McGregor says. “But while we are good at the theatre of human rights, overall you would say that while we talk the walk, we don’t necessarily walk the talk.”

Dr McGregor, a former journalist and Human Rights Commissioner, led a study team that included Waikato Law Professor Margaret Wilson and human rights lawyer Sylvia Bell.

They examined whether New Zealand’s ratification of the six major international human rights treaties, and the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review process, had increased the implementation of human rights in New Zealand.

Although the six treaties (listed below) were ratified by New Zealand in the 1970s, there has been little evaluation until now of their domestic impact and no process for evaluating their ongoing impacts.

The report found poor archival information within government agencies on our treaty commitments, a problem compounded by public service restructuring and a lack of continuity in treaty body reporting.

The report says treaty body ratification had contributed to positive change in New Zealand in areas like paid parental leave, prohibiting corporal punishment of children and improving disabled persons’ rights.

But there were signs of regression – for example, the Public Health and Disability Amendment Act 2013, passed quickly in Parliament without select committee scrutiny, effectively abolished the right of individuals to complain to the Human Rights Commission.

Other examples included dropping the age of prosecution in youth courts to 12 and in criminal courts to 17, dismantling state mechanisms to close the gender pay gap, and removing the right of some prisoners to vote.

“To give full effect to New Zealand’s international commitments, there needs to be some recognition of an individual’s right to complain about government action,” the report says.

Structural change is needed to hold the government accountable for implementing treaty body recommendations, including a national repository of all relevant material including shadow reports. A single government agency should be responsible for collating, maintaining and co-ordinating treaty body reporting.

The Human Rights Act 1993 should be comprehensively reviewed, with the Human Rights Commission made truly independent, reporting to an officer of Parliament rather than the Ministry of Justice.

Former Prime Minister and public lawyer Sir Geoffrey Palmer has praised the report, calling its recommendations “well-based, moderate and practicable.”

The six major international human rights treaties are:

  • International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR);
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD);
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW),
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); and
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

The Law Foundation provided funding of $163,000 for this report which can be found under the “Publications” tab at www.lawfoundation.org.nz.

Lynda Hagen is the Executive Director of the New Zealand Law Foundation.

Last updated on the 17th March 2016