Concerns about rights of people in detention during response to COVID-19

Concerns about rights of people in detention during response to COVID-19

April 2, 2020

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.  

People detained by the authorities have a heightened risk of infection due to living in close proximity to one another and because of their limited capacity to take precautionary measures. A person who is in government-provided detention, which they are not free to leave, is a person in detention under international human rights law. This includes prisons, 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 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 Paul Hunt, Chief Human Rights Commissioner.

“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.”  

“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,” says Hunt. 

“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.” 

“We will continue to work with our partners and government agencies to ensure that the rights of people in detention, including those in quarantine under the Health Act, are upheld,” says Hunt.  

If you have concerns about your or someone else’s conditions or treatment in detention, we encourage you to call our Infoline on 0800 496 877 to speak with our team.

More information

The Human Rights Commission is the Central National Preventive Mechanism (CNPM) under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, Cruel Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (OPCAT). 

The Commission coordinates the activities of the Office of the Ombudsman, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, the Independent Police Conduct Authority and the Inspector of Penal Establishments (known as National Prevention Mechanisms or NPMs) which inspect places of detention including: 

  • Prisons 
  • Police cells 
  • Service penal establishments
  • Youth justice facilities 
  • Oranga Tamariki residences; and 

Health and disability places of detention, such as intellectual disability units and acute mental health units.  

OPCAT is an Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (CAT) focused on preventing torture and ill-treatment in places of detention through a system of regular visits undertaken by independent bodies. The CAT is an international Convention committing states to outlaw torture practices and make them a crime. 

For more information on the work of NPMs in monitoring places of detention and the prevention of torture, please see here.  

For more information on OPCAT, please see here

For the latest guidance from the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture on monitoring places of detention during the coronavirus pandemic, please see here.  

For the latest guidance from the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture on monitoring places of detention during the coronavirus pandemic, please see here.

To see more information, resources and news about COVID-19, click here.