Geneva human rights committee ‘shocked’ at NZ’s human rights report card

Apr 24, 2018 | News

New Zealand received a mixed reception from the UN Committee responsible for oversight of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) when it met in Geneva last month.

Human Rights chief commissioner David Rutherford and chief legal advisor Janet Anderson-Bidois attended the review, and Justice Minister Andrew Little addressed questions from the committee on the Government’s action on policies and legislation, which aimed to ensure Kiwis had access to equal economic, social and cultural rights.

However, some of New Zealand’s human rights statistics shocked the committee, Rutherford said.

“While issues like health disparities, or domestic violence, are well-known to many of us in New Zealand, they came as a shock to some committee members.”

They were shocked by statistics on child poverty, inadequate housing, the incarceration rate, and violence, abuse and bullying.

These statistics “didn’t seem to sit well with our status as a developed nation,” Rutherford said.

Seeing the language that the committee used to describe New Zealand’s record was “surprising”, Little said.

“I was certainly surprised by their language because over the two days that I met with them…the conversation was very constructive and very good and it seemed to me at the end of it for engaging in their questions and so on it was incredibly positive.”

The committee also noted significant standard of living, education, and health disparities for groups such as Māori, Pasifika people, disabled people, and the LGBTI community.

“Māori and Pasifika New Zealanders are more likely to be affected by preventable conditions, and to die prematurely,” he said.

“They are also less likely to be able to access care because of socio-economic barriers.”

Meanwhile, people with intellectual disabilities had an average life expectancy several decades less than other people of the same age.

The committee picked out three main areas where it wanted the Government to report back to the committee within 18 months.

These were the development of a human rights-based housing strategy, progress on reducing family violence, and the removal of benefit sanctions.

The issues of housing, family violence, and benefit sanctions, along with New Zealand’s rate of child poverty and incarceration have all recently been in the spotlight in New Zealand.

Earlier in the year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced the country’s first child poverty reduction targets in an aim to put a “historic dent” in child poverty. She put in place three 10-year targets, and a child poverty reduction bill, which outlined a series of ways to measure child poverty.

Little said he wasn’t “particularly fussed” about the priority areas that had been set out because the Government was already on top of addressing them.

“We should have a good story to tell about steps we’re taking in relation to them,” he said.

According to the Ministry of Social Development’s Household incomes in New Zealand report 140,000 children – or 13 per cent – were living in households with income of less than 50 per cent of the median, before housing costs, in 2016.

Meanwhile, Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis and Little have spoken about widespread changes to the criminal justice system, in order to drop the prison population by 30 per cent in the next 15 years. New Zealand’s prison muster has been growing at “one of the most rapid rates ever recorded”, according to Corrections. In 2016 the prison population exceeded 10,000 for the first time, and it had continued to grow since then.

New Zealand has long had one of the worst family violence records in the OECD, with police attending more than 100,000 domestic violence callouts a year.

And at the end of last year the Government and Opposition were at odds over benefit sanctions – the new Government wanted to scrap sanctions for sole parent beneficiaries who did not name the other parent, and Ministry of Social Development report from 2016 was inconclusive, saying: “We do not have sufficient evidence to confirm if the benefit reduction is achieving the policy’s intent.”

The Human Rights Commission also made a submission to the committee, which called for New Zealand to demonstrate a more tangible legislative, policy and practice commitment to meeting its obligations under ICESCR.

The committee review process aimed to identify what needed to change in New Zealand in order to “move the dial” on human rights, Rutherford said.

Read the story on Stuff here.

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