David Rutherford's Statement To The UN Human Rights Committee

David Rutherford's Statement To The UN Human Rights Committee

March 17, 2016

Statement to the UN Human Rights Committee 14 March 2016


New Zealand’s national human rights institution welcomes the opportunity to address the United Nations Human Rights Committee on New Zealand’s compliance with its international legal obligations under the International Covenant for Political and Civil Rights.

Our comments are made in the context that in comparison with many countries New Zealand has high levels of protection and realisation of political and civil rights.  In many respects that is a result of ongoing healthy and justified criticism within New Zealand that as a nation we could always do better.

The major political and civil human rights issues in New Zealand relate to violence or the threat of violence, particularly family violence, sexual violence and the threat of violence from terrorists; and discrimination that sees more Māori and more disabled people in our prisons. Significant research and work is being led by the Government to reduce family and sexual violence, balance the political and civil rights in counter-terrorism activities and eliminate the bias that the Government has accepted is present in the criminal justice system.

Violence and abuse in New Zealand and responses to the threat of violence by terrorists

Nowhere could we do better more than in reducing the level of violence and abuse in New Zealand. As Amy Adams, the Minister of Justice who leads the State Delegation to this review has noted: “I think it is far too easy across large tracts of New Zealand, to ignore and turn a blind eye to the fact that our family violence stats are appalling, and some of the worst in the world.”  

In February 2016 the Family Violence Death Review Committee, which conducts independent reviews on family violence-related deaths, released its fifth report. The report provided the historical and current context for the levels of violence in New Zealand and concluded that there needs to be more focus on changing behaviours, better information sharing between agencies, and more cohesion and integrated approaches from Government. In welcoming the report, the Minister of Justice said: “The report identifies that our family violence system is one formed from default rather design and highlights the opportunity that transformational change presents.”

Children, boys and girls, women and Maori suffer greater amounts of violence and abuse than others. Bullying in our schools also disproportionately affects disabled students and GLBTI students.

The Commission is very supportive of the work being led in New Zealand by the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Social Development on family and sexual violence. This work is substantive and ongoing. For example, last week the Minister released a summary of submissions on the review of the law addressing family violence. The submissions included support for the creation of specific family violence offences, the need to create non-court pathways to stop violence without involving the criminal justice system, and improving the way agencies work together and share information within Government. The Minister announced that the Government is now putting together a package of potential changes for Cabinet consideration, and that further announcements would be made soon. Accordingly, the Committee may wish to consider asking the State to report back in twelve months on the steps that have been taken to address these issues.

Improving the appalling amount of violence and abuse in New Zealand will require changes in law and policy but just as much or more it will require us to change the culture that has accepted these levels of violence and abuse.  We are going to need to change the negative attitudes and behaviours that underpin the violence and abuse including sexism, racism, ableism and homophobia.  We have achieved this sort of change in other areas before and the work underway holds the hope that we can do it again.

Most family violence, including sexual violence, is not reported to the criminal justice system so reported offences may rise without indicating an increase in actual violence and abuse. Of reported violence over 50% of it is perpetrated by 6% of the population on 6% of the population. There is, therefore, a significant group of multiple victims and offenders.

The Global Agenda 2030 Goals and indicators are relevant to violence and abuse. The violence reduction targets and indicators in SDG Goal 16 provide the platform to strengthen existing and ongoing interventions in New Zealand.  SDG Goal 16.1 is to by 2030 “significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere.” SDG Goal 16.2 is to: “end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children”. The global SDG indicators related to those goals will provide the basis for human rights indicators. The global SDG indicators will also provide the basis for SDG national indicators to be developed so progress against the goals can be measured. 

We can also do better by eliminating the bias in our criminal justice system.  Since the United Nations Committee Against Torture last year commended the New Zealand Police “The Turning of the Tide” strategy to address bias against Maori, the Government has agreed to expand the approach in the development of similar strategies for the wider Justice sector.  Discrimination and bias against Maori and disabled people sees more of both groups in prison than there should be. 

The other issue that relates to violence is the reaction to the threat of violence posed by terrorism and the measures taken to counter that threat. In 2013, the Commission used its reporting power to the Prime Minister to ask for an inquiry into New Zealand’s laws relating to security and intelligence. The need for regular reviews was legislated by the Parliament. Last week the reviewers released their report.

The Commission has broadly welcomed the proposals made in the report. The Government is considering its response. If the Government and the Parliament accept the recommendations the Commission believes that a significant improvement in compliance with the ICCPR and the Bill of Rights Act 1990 will be achieved.  The Government response to the reviewers recommendations is a matter that the Committee might wish to receive a report back on in 12 months. 

Discrimination and unequal realisation of rights.

The other major civil and political rights issue in New Zealand is discrimination and the related unequal realisation of human rights. As well as discrimination in the criminal justice system, the effect of this discrimination is seen in unequal realisation of economic and social rights – particularly adequate standard of living (income and housing), education and health. While successive governments have committed to addressing these issues gaps still remain across key indicators.

The adoption of the Global Agenda 2030 reinforces the promises made in the international human rights treaties to do better in eliminating discrimination in the realisation of human rights to adequate standard of living including adequate housing, good health and education. There are strategies and plans in place to address the fact that some New Zealanders are currently being left behind in education, health, work and income and housing but there is no current agreement on how to measure realisation.  SDG Goal 1.2 is to reduce  poverty as nationally defined by 2030. That is going to require New Zealand to agree on a national definition of poverty. The requirements to disaggregate data into the groups the human rights treaties are concerned with is going to make reporting on whether these strategies are working or not easier in the future. The Commission is working with the Government on early work relating to human rights/SDG indicators. Our intention is that once the indicators are agreed they will be added to the our National Plan of Action for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights. This is in line with the signal to States by the United Nations  that existing international reporting mechanisms should be “double purposed” to lighten the real or perceived reporting obligations. 

The SDG Goals most relevant to these issues are SDG Goals 1.4 (access to base services), 1.2 (reduce poverty by half as poverty is defined nationally), 3.8 (access to health), 4.1 ,4.2 and 4a (access to education), 10.2 (social inclusion) and 11.1 (adequate housing).

A former New Zealand Minister of Justice, Margaret Wilson, recently acknowledged that: “The recognition of international obligations can be a two-edged sword, however. Those who applaud the recognition of human rights obligations may be less comfortable with the legal enforcement of the legal obligations under international trade agreements”.  This reality is currently at play in New Zealand as it considers ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and starts the process of negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union.  The Commission has made two submissions on these issues in the last month. It has shared those submissions with the Committee.

In its submission to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the proposed free trade agreement with the EU the Commission recommended that the New Zealand adopt a trade strategy similar to the EU’s Trade for All and also adopt the related transparent consultation processes during negotiation, conduct human rights impact analysis and adopt the investment court approach instead of Investor-State Dispute Arbitration.

In its submission to the Select Committee considering ratification of the   TPP the Commission, having regard to the fact that the New Zealand consultation process had not been as transparent as it could have been, made similar recommendations to those it made in relation to the proposed free trade agreement with the EU.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

There are a number of issues affecting the human rights of smaller groups of people that are very significant for those groups.  One of the frustrations for these groups with the UN Treaty Body and UPR process is that their issues are ignored as the UN bodies involved respond to other issues.  We want to take this opportunity to highlight one of these groups in particular today.

A classic example of this ‘ignoring’ for SOGI people  was the UPR process. No States made a recommendation on an excellent submission by a coalition of SOGI people  on human rights issues for SOGI people in New Zealand. The then Minister of Justice was moved to say in her closing statement that the SOGI submission would not be forgotten.  However, no action was taken to address the issues. After waiting to see if the State would engage the Commission reached out to the SOGI coalition and has worked with them on a process that will continue the advocacy and hopefully result in action from UN Treaty Bodies and the State to address these issues. The Commission fully endorses the submission made by the SOGI group to the Committee and asks the Committee to make recommendations to the State in terms suggested by the SOGI group. 


The Commission is available to answer any questions that the Committee may have on the issues raised in this statement, in its submission to the Committee or any other matters related to the implementation of the ICCPR in New Zealand.

He aha te mea nui o te ao

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

What is the most important thing in the world?

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people

David Rutherford, Chief Human Rights Commissioner

David Rutherford was appointed Chief Human Rights Commissioner on September 2011. Prior to his appointment, he was the managing director of Special Olympics Asia Pacific and based in Singapore.

He has held senior executive roles in building materials and agribusiness businesses operating in New Zealand and Australia, has been chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union and has worked as a corporate, securities and commercial lawyer in New Zealand and Canada.