Economic, social and cultural rights

Your rights

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”


Human rights are what people need to live with dignity and enjoy freedom. Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms that every person in the world should have.

Everyone has the right to:

  • The right to life and liberty
  • Freedom of expression
  • Equality before the law
  • The right to be free from discrimination
  • The right to participate in culture
  • The right to education

In New Zealand the Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act set out these human rights in law.


Everyone is equally entitled to human rights without discrimination. Discrimination happens when someone is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances. Discrimination can be direct or indirect, and generally takes the form of exclusion or rejection from something.

People with may experience unfair treatment because of factors such as how they look, how they identify, their age or gender, or who they choose to love.

Discrimination can also be subtle, creating systemic barriers that lock people out of social and economic opportunities.

What laws protect you against discrimination

The Human Rights Act makes discrimination unlawful when it occurs in:

  • government or state sector activities
  • public education and health services
  • employment
  • business partnerships
  • industrial and professional associations
  • qualifying bodies and vocational training bodies
  • access to public places, vehicle and facilities
  • access to goods and services
  • access to land, housing and accommodation
  • and access to education.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act sets out a range of civil and political rights, including among other things, the right to freedom of expression, the right to religious belief, the right to freedom of movement, and the right to be free from discrimination.

Every year we field thousands of complaints and queries from people across the country. Nine out of ten complaints are resolved by our team of mediators.

If you experience or indirect discrimination you can complain  to the Human Rights Commission. Find our more information about using your rights here.

To find out more about what the Human Rights Act protects you from you can view this part of our Enquiries, Complaints, and Support section.

Social rights

Equality is one of the most powerful ideas in modern political thought and gives life to rights. This is because all individuals have rights because each individual matters - equally.

The clearest statement on equality in New Zealand is found in Article 3 of the Treaty of Waitangi in which the Crown extended to Māori "all the rights and privileges of British subjects." Apart from this, there is no specific reference in New Zealand law to equality. 

While many people assume that freedom from discrimination and equality are the same thing, a world without discrimination is not necessarily a world without equality.

'Social rights', within a Human Rights approach framework, refers to the treatment of all groups in society as equal rather than equal treatment. Differences in gender, sex, income, health, age, income, or sexual orientation or identity should not result in unfair treatment under the law and should not reduce opportunities unjustifiably.

The Human Rights Commission recognises and values diversity of identities and communities and acknowledges the difficulty encompassing this diversity under any single umbrella term.

The rights of women

Women and girls have the same fundamental human rights as men and boys have. These rights are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and more explicitly referred to in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action.

CEDAW, is the principal international instrument on the rights of women. The Convention’s focus is on eliminating all forms of discrimination against women so that substantive equality, which requires equality in practice and the elimination of structural forms of inequality, can be achieved.

The CEDAW describes the three obligations that are central to state parties’ efforts to eliminate discrimination against women as:

  1. To ensure that there is no direct or indirect discrimination in their laws and that women are protected against discrimination – whether committed by public authorities, the judiciary, organisations, enterprises or private individuals – in the public as well as the private spheres, by competent tribunals as well as by sanctions and other remedies. 
  2. To improve the de facto position of women through concrete and effective policies and programmes. 
  3. To address prevailing gender relations and the persistence of gender-based stereotypes that affect women, not only through individual acts by individuals but also in the law, and legal and societal structures and institutions. 

Prohibiting discrimination against women is reinforced by the major human rights instruments of the United Nations:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 
  • The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 
  • The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 
  • The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination
  • The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 
  • The Convention on the Rights of the Child 
  • The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
The rights of sexual and gender minorities

All people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have the same human rights and freedoms. All sexual and gender minorities in New Zealand have these rights. This includes people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, takataapui, intersex, transgender, whakawähine, tangata ira tane, fa’afafine or fakaleiti. 

It is unlawful to discriminate against anyone in New Zealand because of their sexual orientation or sex/gender identity within areas of life covered by the Human Rights Act 1993. These include applying for a job, at work, in education and health care in government agencies’ policies and practice and when you buy things or pay for services.

The Yogyakarta Principles set out the international human rights standards that all countries must meet to uphold the human rights of sexual and gender minorities. They state that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have the same rights and freedoms. All sexual and gender minorities in New Zealand have these human rights, whichever word they use to describe their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Human rights in relation to sexual orientation or gender identity include, for example, the rights to: 

  • be freed from discrimination 
  • be recognised as a person before the law 
  • life, liberty and security of the person 
  • freedom from arbitrary detention and to a fair trial 
  • an adequate standard of living, including decent work and housing 
  • education 
  • health and protection from medical abuses 
  • found a family 
  • participate in public life and in cultural life
  • freedom of expression 
  • freedom of association and peaceful assembly 
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Anti-discrimination provisions in all major international human rights treaties spell out specific grounds on which discrimination is prohibited.

The principle of non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation had become “one that is firmly grounded in international standards, requiring not only the repeal of discriminatory criminal laws but also the adoption of proactive anti-discrimination measures”.

New Zealand laws which related to sexual and gender minorities:

Sexual Harassment

Under the Human Rights Act 1993 two types of sexual harassment are prohibited. They are:

  1. Physical behaviour, language or visual material of a sexual nature, which is unwelcome or offensive, and either repeated or significant enough to have a detrimental effect on the person subjected to it.
  2. A request for sexual activity together with an implied or overt promise of preferential treatment or a threat of detrimental treatment.

Sexual harassment of either kind is unlawful when it occurs in any of the following areas:

  • Employment
  • Access to education
  • Access to public places, vehicles and facilities
  • Access to goods and services
  • Access to land, housing and accommodation
  • Industrial and professional associations, qualifying bodies and vocational training bodies
  • Business partnerships.

Sexual harassment should always be taken seriously because:

  • People don’t have to put up with sexual behaviour they don’t like
  • Sexual harassment is often repeated unless action is taken
  • Sexual harassment may affect people’s ability to work, study, access services or to feel comfortable in their school, tertiary institution or workplace
  • Sexual harassment affects self-esteem negatively and can cause health problems
  • Sexual harassment can cause major disruption to a workplace or business reputation
  • If employers do not take sufficient steps to prevent harassment occurring, they may be liable for the harassment carried out by their employees, or of their employees by their clients.

The rights of children and young people

Overall, most children in New Zealand are able to enjoy their rights, but they remain one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. There are still significant numbers of children who experience violence and neglect, poverty and poor health, and barriers to the full enjoyment of their right to education.

Children and young people (all human beings under the age of 18) have the same basic human rights as adults. Children also have specific human rights that recognise their special need for protection. 

Children’s rights are commonly viewed as falling into three categories:

  1. Provision rights: include the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to free education, the right to adequate health resources and the right to legal and social services.
  2. Protection rights: include protection from abuse and neglect, protection from bullying, protection from discrimination, and safety within the justice system.
  3. Participation rights: include the right to freedom of expression and the right to participate in public life.

Children’s rights are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). This is one of the key international human rights treaties and is the most widely accepted of the human rights instruments.

The right to health 

The right to health is fundamental to human rights and is expressly referred to in a number of core international treaties.

The most significant is International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which refers to the right to the “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is designed to ensure that people with disabilities can enjoy the same human rights as everyone else – has helped to reinforce a paradigm shift to a social model of disability, emphasising the effects of a disabling environment rather than the more traditional medical model, which focusses on disease or illness.

International human rights treaties recognising the right to health:

  • Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
  • Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (Migrant Workers Convention)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

A human rights-based approach to health:

The Right to Health Underlying healthcare determinants:

  • Availability: functioning public health and healthcare facilities, goods, services and programmes in sufficient quantity 
  • Accessibility: non-discrimination, physical accessibility, economic accessibility (affordability), information accessibility 
  • Acceptability: respectful of medical ethics and culturally appropriate, sensitive to age and gender 
  • Quality: scientifically and medically appropriate 

While there is no express right to health in New Zealand law, by ratifying the ICESCR the Government has accepted an undertaking to comply with the standards in the Convention. This is achieved by a range of laws, including legislation directly linked to the delivery of health services: 

  • New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act 2000 
  • Health and Disability Services (Safety) Act 2001 
  • Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 and the Health Act 1956. 

Other legislation deals with specific issues, including the: 

  • Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992 (MH(CAT) Act) 
  • Intellectual Disability (Compulsory Care and Rehabilitation) Act 2003 (IDCCR Act) 
  • Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Act 1966 (ADA Act).

The right to housing

The human right to adequate housing has been recognised in multiple international human rights treaties. As New Zealand is a signatory to many of these international treaties, everyone in the country has the right to adequate housing. Government is obliged to ensure this right is upheld.

The human right to adequate housing does not simply mean a roof over people’s heads. The United Nations has defined seven standards that must be met in order for housing to be adequate. You can read our 'Right to housing' Flyer for more information on this.

While Government is not obliged to build housing for everyone, it does have a responsibility to ensure everyone has access to adequate housing, regardless of personal, social or environmental issues. This responsibility means that Government must guide and monitor the provision of housing in New Zealand to ensure people are able to access suitable housing.

The right to adequate housing is broad and consists of seven standards:

  • Security of tenure: People have the right to know they are protected against forced eviction, harassment and other threats.
  • Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure: People must be able to access services such as safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.
  • Affordability: The cost of housing must not threaten or negatively affect people’s enjoyment of other rights.
  • Habitability: Housing must provide physical safety and protection against the elements, and must not negatively affect people’s health.
  • Accessibility: Disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, including the disabled, must be given full access to housing and their needs taken into account.
  • Location: Housing must allow people to access to key facilities such as employment opportunities, healthcare centres and schools, and must not be close to polluted land.
  • Cultural Adequacy: People’s cultural identity and beliefs must be respected and taken into account.

Housing providers have responsibilities to ensure the human rights of their clients are met. As framed in international human rights law, the human right to adequate housing incorporates each of the conditions outlined in the seven standards above; thus, you are obliged as a housing provider to guarantee these conditions.

The right to housing is not specifically provided for in any New Zealand legislation, although it is addressed in a range of central government housing policies, laws and entitlements, including:

In New Zealand, the inability to obtain decent, affordable housing is one of the major barriers to an adequate standard of living. The quality of housing directly affects people’s health, particularly in the case of children and old people.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) says that the right to housing includes:

  • security of tenure, for example legal protection from arbitrary eviction 
  • availability of services, for example sustainable access to potable water, sanitation and emergency services 
  • affordability, for example housing costs as a ratio of income 
  • habitability, for example the soundness of physical structure and the absence of dampness and crowding 
  • accessibility, for example by all ethnic, racial, national minority and other social groups 
  • location, for example in relation to employment and schools 
  • cultural adequacy, for example taking into account traditional housing patterns.

The right to education

What is the right to education? 

Education is both a human right in itself and an indispensable means of realising other human rights. Education is essential for the development of human potential, enjoyment of the full range of human rights and respect for the rights of others.

Core elements of the right to education include (as specified in international treaties):

  • entitlement to free and compulsory primary education 
  • availability of different forms of secondary education 
  • access to higher education on non-discriminatory terms 
  • education directed to develop individuals to their fullest potential and to prepare them for responsible life in a free society, including development of respect for others and for human rights 
  • availability of accessible educational and vocational information 
  • measures developed by the State to ensure full participation in education 
  • availability of some form of basic education for those who may not have received or completed primary education 
  • protection and improvement of conditions for teachers 
  • respect for the right of parents/legal guardians to choose schools other than those established and funded by the State, and to ensure that the religious and moral education of their children conforms to their own convictions 
  • respect for academic freedom and institutional autonomy, including the freedom to express opinions about a workplace institution or system, fulfil functions without discrimination or fear of sanction, and participate in professional or representative academic bodies.

The right to education is set out in a number of international treaties, the most significant of which are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Articles 13 and 14) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 28 and 29).

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that education should be directed at:

  • the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential 
  • the development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and for the principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations 
  • the development of respect for the child’s parents; his or her own cultural identity, language and values; for the national values of the country in which the child is living; the country from which he or she may originate; and civilisations different from his or her own 
  • the preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin 
  • the development of respect for the natural environment [Article 29]

Poverty and the right to social security

The right to an adequate standard of living is about “the human person’s rights to certain fundamental freedoms, including freedoms to avoid hunger, disease and illiteracy”. It includes specific rights to adequate food, clothing and housing, and to social security and work. This right is essential in order to achieve other economic, social and cultural rights, such as the rights to health and education.

According to the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):

  • Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security. 
  • Everyone has the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. 

CESCR has identified five essential elements of the right to social security:

  1. Availability of a sustainable social security system – established under domestic law and administered and supervised by public authorities 
  2. Coverage of social risks and contingencies – specifically to provide health-care and benefits due to sickness, old age, unemployment, employment injury, maternity or disability, and family and child support, including to survivors and orphans 
  3. Adequacy – of amount and duration, respecting the principles of human dignity and non-discrimination 
  4. Accessibility – coverage for all, especially those who are marginalised; eligibility criteria must be reasonable, proportionate and transparent; any contributory social security scheme must be affordable; beneficiaries must have information and be able to participate in the scheme’s administration and have physical access to its services 
  5. Relationship to other rights – other measures are necessary to complement the right to social security, including rehabilitation, childcare and welfare, and measures to combat poverty and social exclusion.

The Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit has researched many of these issues and recommends ways in which the current situation could be improved – through new ways of working, improved support for childcare, paid parental leave and financial and other supports to prevent and reduce problem debt. Click for further information.

Domestic Violence and Bullying

Family violence remains the greatest human rights issue facing New Zealanders. All of us, no matter who we are or where we live deserve a life that is free from violence. This is a basic human right all New Zealanders ought to have and one we are all responsible for.

At the 2013 review of New Zealand’s human rights record before the United Nations Human Rights Council the government accepted recommendations to put in place a national strategy to combat domestic violence and child abuse. In its response the government noted it is developing plans to address targeted areas of violence against women and children.

The key pieces of legislation are the Crimes Act 1961, the Domestic Violence Act 1995, the Summary Offences Act 1981 and the Harassment Act 1997


Bullying at school is a serious problem. It can lead to serious negative physical, emotional and social impacts. Bullying affects the rights of young people to be safe and free from violence. Experiencing bullying or harassment can also interfere with young people’s right to education.

The Commission has published an analysis of the human rights issues in situations of school bullying, harassment and/or violence, to help make schools safer for everyone: School violence, bullying and abuse: A human rights analysis.

Bullying is also a difficult issue to deal with in the workplace. In response the Commission has developed a toolkit which looks at what workplace bullying is, what the law says, and examines the costs to employers. View the workplace bullying kit here.

Learn more about the Commission's work in the area of bullying, in particular our work as part of the Bullying Prevention Advisory Group here

The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 makes it an offence to send or post harmful messages – punishable by a $2000 fine or three months’ jail – and creates a specialised enforcement agency to deal with cyber bullying complaints. Under the Bill, inciting someone to commit suicide over the internet is illegal.

The right to breastfeed

The human right to food and nutrition, including breastmilk, is well established in international human rights principles and law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights assert the rights to adequate standards of living, to food, life, survival, and development.

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) protects women from discrimination because of the responsibilities of motherhood. Most explicitly, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) sets out the rights of children to proper nutrition and health care, while highlighting the importance of their parents’ education on “basic knowledge of child health and nutrition [and] the advantages of breastfeeding”.

Read about our work on the right to breastfeed here.


Christchurch: An Accessible City?
For the Commission's January 2016 Podcast, host Sally chatted with the HRC's Erin Gough, as well as Lorraine Guthrie, Ruth Jones and John Bourke. You can listen here.

Domestic Violence and Ethnicity
For the Commission's November 2015 Podcast, host Sally interviewed Snr Constable Andrea Trenchard, Ambika Kohli and Mere Ratuva on the topic of domestic violence and ethnicity. While this show is difficult listening in parts given the prevalence of domestic violence in NZ society (we have the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the world), there are some powerful statements by the guests on the intersects between violence and culture, and a really enlightening discussion about the parameters within which domestic violence is defined. You can listen here.