New Zealand’s parliamentary scrutiny of its international human rights obligations will be evaluated in a new Law Foundation-backed study.
This follows criticism that New Zealand is lagging behind countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia in formally monitoring compliance with human rights treaties.
New Zealand does not have a specialist parliamentary body for considering human rights issues, and proposals for a stand-alone select committee to do the job have been repeatedly rejected in recent years by the Standing Orders Committee.
The co-authors of a 2015 Foundation study on New Zealand’s human rights promotion and monitoring, Professor Judy McGregor of Auckland University of Technology and Professor Margaret Wilson of the University of Waikato, argue that the lack of a dedicated human rights monitoring process has put New Zealand out of step with comparable jurisdictions.
“We have a general compliance obligation under international treaties, but in terms of monitoring specific legislation it’s really totally dependent on NGOs coming in to make submissions,” Ms Wilson says.
“The Human Rights Commission has a role and does what it can; it does a good job. But New Zealand needs a more vigorous, dedicated and impartial process. Most people accept that we have been pretty light on scrutiny.”
Examples of rights removal without proper process included a 2013 amendment to the Public Health and Disability Act, which took away the right of individuals to complain to the Human Rights Commission, and the removal of voting rights for some prisoners. Another was the “Hobbit” legislation that changed the status of employees in the film industry.
The new research by Professors McGregor and Wilson will study the effectiveness of select committees in scrutinising human rights over the next two years, looking specifically at rights protected under the Bill of Rights Act and the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The authors will consider selected historic examples such as the Health and Disability Act and prisoner voting rights removal mentioned above, as well as five key pieces of new legislation. They will also review models in other countries with dedicated monitoring bodies.
“Overall we want to make an assessment of current practice and recommend what, if any, reforms would enhance the consideration of human rights issues by the select committees,” Ms Wilson says.
“New Zealand’s history and heritage of pioneering and protecting human rights could be enhanced by investigation of how the legislature can better scrutinise bills with rights considerations. The research allows us to assess how much select committees inform parliamentary debate and influence legislative outcomes.”
The Law Foundation recently awarded two new grants under its 2017 Shadow Reports awards programme, which allows NGOs to report in parallel with official reports on New Zealand’s compliance with human rights obligations under international treaties.
One award, to the Human Rights Foundation of Aotearoa, will provide parallel reports to the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and also to co-ordinate the Joint Stakeholders’ report to the UN Human Rights Council universal periodic review (UPR). In addition, they will lodge a mid-term report commenting on the extent to which the New Zealand Government has implemented recommendations made as part of the UPR in 2013.
The second award was made to Ngā Hau e Whā and Associates, a national disability rights group. They will report in 2018 on New Zealand’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities with a focus on the rights of people with experience of psychosocial disability.