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Universal Periodic Review

Human Rights Council - Universal Periodic Review working group: Universal Periodic Review of New Zealand

Statement by Honourable Simon Power, Minister of Justice, Thursday 7 May 2009

Mr President,

Distinguished representatives of the Member States and the Observer States of the Human Rights Council,

It is an honour for me to address the Working Group of the Human Rights Council on this, the first Universal Periodic Review of New Zealand.

I would like to introduce the members of the New Zealand delegation. In addition to Ambassador Don MacKay of the Permanent Mission in Geneva, we have representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Stuart Beresford and Nicholai Anderson; Office of Crown Law, Cheryl Gwyn; Department of Labour, Christine Hyndman; and Department of Corrections, Paul Monk.

During this review, I will explain New Zealand’s human rights situation and outline the challenges we face as a small diverse Pacific democracy.  We have a peaceful population made up of 4 million people who identify as being of Maori, European, Asian, and Pacific descent.

New Zealand has always taken its human rights commitments seriously.  Our participation in this review mechanism represents the most recent part of our continuing dedication to improving human rights in New Zealand. As no country has a perfect human rights record, today we seek both to share our positive experiences and to learn from others in relation to the challenges facing New Zealand and the world. 

As noted in our National Report, New Zealand is committed to equal rights and equal opportunities for all those living in New Zealand.  In New Zealand, we call this a “fair go”.  A fair go means that any person’s future in New Zealand should be determined by their motivation, hard work and capabilities.

Integral to our national identity are the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Māori.  Māori represent about 15 percent of the population and are a vibrant and growing part of New Zealand society.  Much like indigenous peoples everywhere, Māori are not an homogeneous group but a people with various political and tribal allegiances, who hold many positions in society. People can choose to be recognised as Maori through a self-identification process.

A very significant part of indigenous rights in New Zealand is the Treaty of Waitangi.  The Treaty, signed in 1840, is one of the founding documents of modern New Zealand.  The Treaty is a unique agreement between the indigenous people of New Zealand and the Crown or Government. It remains one of our core constitutional documents.  Over one hundred and sixty years after it was signed, the Treaty remains the basis for the continuing partnership between Māori and the Government. 

Since 1867 Māori have enjoyed continuous representation in New Zealand’s Parliament.  There are now seven seats specifically allocated to Maori in the current Parliament – and in total, there are now 20 Members of Parliament or 16.3% who identify as Maori.

New Zealand has a long history of promoting and protecting human rights.  For over a century New Zealand has ensured universal, free and compulsory primary education; recognised the right of women to vote; and provided a state-funded retirement pension.

In modern times, New Zealand has adopted a system of “Mixed Member Proportional Representation” in national elections.  This has resulted in a more diverse and representative Parliament.  Following the 2008 national election, of 122 Members of Parliament, 6 identify as being of Asian descent and 5 of Pacific Island descent. This is in addition to the twenty seats held by those who identify as Maori.  Women comprise 34% of the new Parliament. As well as being increasingly representative of various New Zealand ethnic identities, our Parliament today has a greater number of younger Members of Parliament.

New Zealand is Party to almost all major international human rights instruments. For a small country, New Zealand has consistently made significant contributions to the international promotion and protection of human rights.  Last year, New Zealand received the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Disability Award for its leading role in the negotiations for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  New Zealand is also a strong supporter of humanitarian initiatives, including, for example, as a leader on the recently concluded Cluster Munitions Convention.

Domestically, human rights in New Zealand are protected by a range of legislation and policy guarantees and initiatives.  The manner of protection reflects New Zealand’s political development and particular challenges.  Civil and political rights receive protection primarily under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act.  Economic, social and cultural rights are protected and promoted through legislation and government policies.

New Zealand considers that engagement with national human rights institutions and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, is vital to the protection of human rights. The National report for today’s dialogue is the product of an open and consultative process with NGOs, the New Zealand Human Rights Commission and Māori. We acknowledge the contributions of the New Zealand national human rights institution and NGO groups to this review through the submission of shadow reports. We welcome their active interest in this dialogue.

New Zealand is proud of its record in being a contributor, nationally and internationally, to human rights. Like all States we need to be honest. We still face a number of challenges.

Māori hold a unique place in New Zealand society.  This is a source of pride for New Zealand.  At the same time, there are areas where improvements are needed.

As I have said before, the Treaty of Waitangi is one of the foundations of modern government in New Zealand.  The Government is committed to advancing the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process, which means recognising the interests of Maori and settling injustices over land and resources that have occurred since the signing of the Treaty in 1840. We know that the settlement of outstanding and historic injustices must occur so that forward-looking relationships between the Government and Māori groups can be restored, in line with the honourable intent of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Government’s goal is to achieve just and durable settlement of historical Treaty claims by 2014. Since 1990, over $1 billion has been committed to final and comprehensive settlements.

The enactment of the Foreshore and Seabed Act in 2004 sparked a significant amount of debate.  The Act sought to clarify Crown, or Government, ownership of the foreshore and the seabed area of New Zealand and access to it for all New Zealanders, while preserving a mechanism for recognition of Maori customary rights. At the time, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues expressed concern that the Act would limit Maori customary rights.

In an historic arrangement with the Maori Party, the new government has entered into a formal agreement with the Maori Party. The agreement sees the Maori Party two co-leaders holding Ministerial Office as part of the Executive, represented in the Cabinet committee structure and consulted across the Government’s legislative programme.

As part of that agreement with the Maori Party, the current Government has established an expert and independent Ministerial panel to review the Foreshore and Seabed Act. The review panel is over half-way through its meetings with Māori and the public in 21 locations across New Zealand.  I understand that these meetings have been well-attended.  The review panel will provide its written report to the Attorney-General by the end of next month for consideration by the Government.

The Government is also concerned about the social, economic and cultural position of Māori in New Zealand. Despite recent socio-economic improvements, disparities still persist for Māori in education, health, employment, crime statistics and income.  The Government is seeking to remedy these inequalities even in the face of global economic problems, and throughout the public sector is committed to the achievement of Māori potential.  Other initiatives include a Māori economic summit held in January of this year, Māori health action plans, the recently launched Māori education curriculum guidelines. The Maori language, Te Reo, is an official language of New Zealand, along with English and New Zealand sign language. The Maori language is now firmly embedded in our education system for both Maori and non-Maori. It is our goal that by 2028 the Māori language will be widely spoken by Māori.

Mr President, I turn now to the issue of international consideration of indigenous issues. In September 2007, the previous Government choose not to support the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples because some of the Declaration’s provisions were considered incompatible with New Zealand’s legal and constitutional arrangements.

The New Zealand Prime Minister has indicated that he would like to see New Zealand move to support the DRIP provided that New Zealand can protect the unique and advanced framework that has been developed for the resolution of issues related to indigenous rights. That framework has been developed in the context of New Zealand’s existing legal arrangements and democratic processes.

On the issue of poverty, we are proud to be a country that works hard to look after its most vulnerable citizens. We are also proud to be a country that supports people when they cannot find work, are ill, or are not able to work. 

New Zealand focuses on working with people who need assistance in the context of their daily lives.  The objective is to increase the number of people moving into full-time work and assist those in part-time work to use that work as a stepping stone into a full-time job where possible.

New Zealand delivers assistance to families with children through the tax system.  There are a number of credits available including a guaranteed minimum family income to families in work. 

Internationally, we recognise the need for development partnerships to support sustainable economic development. Human rights are a central feature of our international aid and development programmes, including in areas such as education, health and policing.

As soon as we came to office in November 2008, the Government took a number of steps to counter the impact of the global economic crisis. New Zealand remains committed to maintaining our respect for all human rights obligations despite the increased challenge of the current economic climate.

We have started implementing a three year economic plan, including a small business relief package to help lighten the load on the small and medium sized businesses which employ many New Zealanders.  In February the Government announced $500 million worth of publicly-funded projects for the housing, transport and education sectors to contribute to economic stimulus.  Earlier this year, the Prime Minister led a summit on job creation and retention in New Zealand. Following the ‘Job Summit’, the Government’s Jobs and Growth Plan seeks to cushion the hardest hit New Zealanders from the effects of the recession. The Government is focused on helping businesses protect jobs - or giving New Zealanders who lose their job the best possible chance of finding a new one.

In recent years New Zealand women have occupied the senior constitutional positions of Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Speaker of the House, Chief Justice, Attorney-General and Governor-General.   As many of you will be aware, New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote, which happened in 1893. Women are well represented in tertiary education programmes and in professional occupations.

New Zealand has a sophisticated legal and policy framework to provide universal protection against all forms of discrimination. Laws exist to ensure the equal rights of women in all areas of life. Women have the right to receive equal pay for work of a similar nature and equal access to education and training.

In the state sector, 42 percent of people in governance roles are women, However, across the public sector, and in the private sector, we need to do better.   Women represent less than nine percent of directors on the boards of our top 100 listed companies.  The Ministry of Women's Affairs has made “Women in Leadership” a priority of their work programme, and as Minister for State Owned Enterprises, I am personally committed to seeing the number of women in top positions rise. We also want to see a broader range of ages represented in leadership roles, publicly-owned boards and Crown entities.

I now turn to children in New Zealand. This is an issue that is particularly important to me.  The New Zealand Government recognises that children are New Zealand’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.  There are too many children growing up in New Zealand lacking opportunities that others have.  Tragically, we continue to experience cases of children dying in New Zealand at the hands of adults who were supposed to care for them. This Government believes that violence and neglect of children cannot be tolerated.  One instance is too many.

The recently enacted Sentencing (Offences against Children) Amendment Bill lists the factors a court must take into account when sentencing adults for violence or neglect, including whether the victim is a child. Those factors will make sentences more severe than would otherwise be the case.  Officials are already working to bring sentences for crimes against children into line with penalties for crimes against adults.

The Government expects that all young people should be in education or training. Those over the age of 16 years also have the option to work.   All young people should have equality of opportunity, but also the responsibility, obligation and motivation to better themselves no matter what their circumstances are.  The Government’s Youth Guarantee addresses the issue of large numbers of young New Zealanders leaving school without any qualifications.  The Government will provide quality education that ensures even troubled youth can achieve their potential, and contribute to our society and economy.

The next issue I would like to speak to is crime and victims.  Domestically, the Department of Corrections, responsible for New Zealand’s prison system, and the New Zealand Police have been key players in implementing policies and practices to ensure the full respect of human rights.

Of particular interest is a recent national meeting on the “drivers of crime”.  This meeting was co-chaired by myself, as Minister of Justice, and by the co-leader of the Maori Party and the Minister of Maori Affairs, Dr Pita Sharples. The meeting focussed on how to stop crime occurring in New Zealand in the first place.  The meeting noted that the people most likely to be victims of crime tend to be those who are already disadvantaged members of our society.  They are also more likely to become repeat victims.  The Government recognises that if New Zealand tolerates crime at its current levels, then we are tolerating continuing inequality in our country.  The Government is committed to reviewing the outcomes from the meeting and incorporating these perspectives into a new policy approach to reducing crime.

The final issue I would like to speak to is New Zealand’s actions with respect to UN treaties.

Recent ratifications by New Zealand include the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness in 2006, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2007 and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008.

In an international context, New Zealand is a strong advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. 

It is a well established constitutional convention in New Zealand to ratify an international treaty only when all existing legislation is compliant with the new treaty.  Because of this, New Zealand also tends to seek few reservations to the treaties it does ratify.  New Zealand is committed to working towards progressively withdrawing its few reservations to human rights treaties over time. New Zealand is committed to maintaining the integrity of the treaty system. We do not take our responsibility in this area lightly. New Zealand will become Party to an international treaty when our domestic legislative framework meets the grade. And in this context, I am pleased to advise that New Zealand is up-to-date with all of its treaty body reporting requirements.

I would like to conclude my opening statement at this point with an observation that protecting human rights in New Zealand is a daily, weekly, monthly process. It is about increasing awareness, changing discriminatory practices, slowly eroding old barriers and quietly building new structures. However incremental the pursuit of human rights, the pursuit to ensure real equality for all New Zealanders must go on.

We received several advance questions, for which we thank the delegations of Argentina, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Hungary, Sweden and the United Kingdom. I hope that I have answered most of those questions in my opening statement. We will elaborate on others as part of our responses this morning.

We will do our best to answer the questions put to us today.

 

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Page last updated: Friday, 12 April 2013 10:09 NZST