New law explicitly affirms human rights of public officials – but silent on the human rights of everyone else

New law explicitly affirms human rights of public officials – but silent on the human rights of everyone else

July 29, 2020

A major piece of new legislation fails to explicitly require public officials to consider their human rights responsibilities to all New Zealanders, says Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt. 

“The Public Service Act is a vital piece of law that will shape the public service for many years to come. The fact that it doesn’t make explicit the human rights responsibilities of public officials is shocking.

In the United Nations, I grew to expect this from repressive regimes, I am dismayed to find it in the Terrace, Lambton Quay and Beehive.”

The Public Service Act passed the third reading before Parliament last week. 

“Much of the Act is to be commended, including attention to the human rights of public officials themselves. But I’m astonished that the new law doesn’t explicitly require public officials to take into account their responsibilities to the people the public sector serves: all New Zealanders.”

The Bill neither explicitly requires - nor even encourages - officials when performing their duties, to take account of the international human rights commitments repeatedly affirmed by New Zealand over many years. 

Hunt wrote in February that human rights place commitments on government, including the public service. 

Over the past 3-months he has written to the State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes, State Services Minister Chris Hipkins, Justice Minister Andrew Little and the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, urging them to explicitly affirm in the legislation that public officials must take account of everyone’s human rights when advising Ministers and devising policies. 

The State Services Commission subsequently endorsed, in its supplementary departmental report, the Human Rights Commission’s call to make explicit in the legislation the human rights of all New Zealanders. 

But still the government resisted.

“The government’s resistance to a suitable human rights clause in the Bill was bizarre because several existing Acts of Parliament already include explicit provisions that require those exercising public functions under the relevant Act to do so in accordance with New Zealand’s international human rights commitments,” said Hunt. 

“Nobody expects all public officials to become human rights experts. But it is essential that they give due attention to national and international human rights commitments early in the policy making process.

In my experience, this is definitely not yet happening as it should. There is a need for greater attention to the capacity of officials so they can keep their human rights responsibilities - their promises - to us all.

Crucially, if considered early in the policy making process, human rights can improve, deepen and enhance a government’s initiatives.” 

Hunt deeply regretted that human rights are often relegated to a tick-box legal compliance check late in the policy making process.

He said the Commission looks forward to further work with officials and the government to ensure national and international human rights help to shape and strengthen governmental policies.