Human Rights in New Zealand

Steve Snively
Transparency Times Co-editor

Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt outlined the state of Human Rights in New Zealand to the TINZ Board at its November meeting.

He acknowledged that there is tight synergy between human rights and transparency/accountability.

Era of declaration to era of implementation

Paul noted that on the international stage, human rights is moving from the declarative stage - that necessarily relies on legal experts - to the implementation stage. This stage needs the active engagement by others including: public servants, unions, business, iwi, civil society, economists, educators and social services.

Human rights in New Zealand

In New Zealand, human rights law sits mainly within the purview of the Human Rights Commission, Crown Law and the Ministry of Justice.

Paul Hunt is calling for New Zealand to take on the challenge of implementation, noting that it is the right thing to do and New Zealand is legally bound to do.

New Zealand has signed up to several international human rights declarations. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. New Zealand has also committed to conventions such as Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).

New Zealand is legally bound to implement the commitments made in those instruments. Regrettably, this means that we are lagging behind. In Commissioner Hunt’s view, the public sector needs to do a better job of embedding these commitments into policy and programmes. The desire to follow international law at the onset needs to be encouraged, as enforcement by national courts cannot be expected or desired.

One example is the right to adequate housing. This is a human right recognised in international human rights law as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. It is referenced in article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New Zealand has committed to implementing this right but consistently, policies appear to make this an option rather than a commitment.

According to Hunt, human rights have usually been understood as committing governments not to do things, such as not to discriminate. They are not usually understood as helping governments take positive action, for example, designing and implementing a policy that ensures everyone has a decent home. He says that this misunderstanding severely diminishes the role of human rights.

Human rights do not provide magic solutions to immensely complex problems. But they provide an anchor and compass. They can help to steady the ship - and chart the way forward.

For more information see:

Paul Hunt, Human Rights Commissioner

Paul Hunt has vast human rights experience encompassing civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. He has worked with organisations such as the United Nations, including the World Health Organisation, addressing issues such as health and improving economic, social, and cultural rights. Mr Hunt has served on the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1999-2002) and as a Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council (2002-2008). He has been admitted as a solicitor in England and Wales and holds a Master of Jurisprudence from the University of Waikato, where he was a Senior Lecturer in Law from 1992-2000. He has published extensively on a wide range of human rights issues.

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