New Zealand Law Society - Concerns about rights of people in detention during COVID-19

Concerns about rights of people in detention during COVID-19

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The Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Paul Hunt, is calling on the Government to respect the rights of people it is holding for detention purposes in its response to COVID-19, and wants independent monitoring to ensure that it is carried out.

The Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier, meanwhile, says all prisoners have the right to be treated fairly during the emergency.

“The Government has obligations to limit the spread of Covid-19, but restrictions placed on people in detention must be necessary, proportionate and respectful of human dignity.” says Mr Hunt.

The Commissioner includes those in detention as anyone in prison, police cells, Oranga Tamariki residences, intellectual disability units, acute mental health units, aged care facilities, and temporary places of detention for quarantine purposes, like hotels and campervans.

“The Government has binding domestic and international human rights obligations to ensure that people in places of detention have access to adequate food and shelter, meaningful activity and engagement with others, health care and protection, and accurate information,” he adds.

“Even in times of crisis, people in detention have human rights that safeguard their dignity. Even in times of emergency, human rights place binding obligations upon the Government to abide by the commitments they have made.

“People being held under the Health Act for quarantine or quarantine-related purposes must be able to communicate with their friends and family. They must also have access to independent medical and legal advice, and other basic needs,” says Hunt.

“While I have confidence that the Government is doing its best to keep the wider community safe from further spread of Covid-19, we must ensure that the use of these extraordinary measures are not unnecessarily or disproportionately impacting the rights of those in detention. That’s why independent monitoring is especially needed at this time. The form of this monitoring needs careful attention so that it is appropriate, effective and safe for all parties.”

Watchdog’s role to continue

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier says all New Zealanders have the right to be treated fairly during the COVID-19 emergency including those under lock and key.

“My role as an independent watchdog will continue during the lockdown period and beyond,” he says. “I will be making sure people are still being treated humanely and New Zealand’s international obligations are being met throughout this crisis,” he says.

“I respect that each facility has a responsibility to do as much as they can to protect detained people, staff, and others, from contracting or spreading infection during the pandemic.

“While some restrictions to detention regimes may be justified for health and safety reasons, I must continue to independently verify that these protections are not compromising people’s basic rights.”

Mr Boshier says he is reviewing his OPCAT inspection programme in light of the COVID-19 actions taken by the government.

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