Your rights

We all have the right to be treated fairly, with respect and to be free from unwelcome racial discrimination.

Racial harassment is behaviour that is racist, hurtful or offensive and is either repeated or serious enough to have a harmful effect on you. Racial harassment can involve spoken, written or visual material or a physical act. You don’t have to put up with racist behaviour you don’t like and racial harassment is often repeated unless action is taken. It may impact on how you feel about work, study or accessing services.

Employers also have a responsibility to take steps to prevent harassment and to respond to complaints. This includes harassment by employees or clients.

You may have been racially harassed if someone: makes offensive remarks or jokes about your race, colour, ethnicity or nationality; mimics the way you speak, e.g. if you have an accent; calls you racist names; shows you racially offensive material in the workplace; or deliberately mispronounces your name.

Racial harassment may also be unintentional. The person who is being offensive may be unaware of its effect, but they can still be held responsible. What is important is how the behaviour affects you or others.

How you can expect to be treated?

  • We all have the right to the equal enjoyment of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights
  • All Indigenous peoples are entitled to self-determination (to choose their political status and the way they want to develop) and the protection of their language, culture, heritage, and relationship to the environment
  • We all have the right to enjoy one's culture and to use one's own language
  • We all have the right to freedom of religion and belief.
  • We all have the right to be treated with respect, dignity and equity. We also have the right to not be harassed, taunted or teased because of our colour, our accent, the way we dress, the food we eat or anything else related to our race or ethnicity.

What is racial harassment?

Racial harassment is behaviour that is racist, hurtful or offensive and either repeated or serious enough to have a harmful effect on you. Many people experience unfair treatment and racism because of how they look or where they come from. Racial discrimination can also be subtle, creating systemic barriers that lock people out of social and economic opportunities. Read the Commission's Racial harassment guide (PDF) for more information.

The Human Rights Act makes this 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.

Every year we field thousands of complaints and queries from people across the country. Approximately a third of all complaints are about racial discrimination. 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.

What laws protect your rights?

The Human Rights Act and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) exist to promote and the protect our rights.

The Human Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate on the ground of colour, race, ethnicity, or national origin in any of the prohibited areas of public life. Read more here.

New Zealand ratified CERD in 1972 which means you should not be treated differently  based on where you were born, what ethnicity you identify as and the colour of your skin. CERD also requires New Zealand to outlaw hate speech and criminalise membership in racist organisations as well as promote understanding between all New Zealanders. 

New Zealand has also signed up to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Read more about these laws here.

Positive discrimination

Both the Human Rights Act and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act recognise that certain groups may need to be treated differently to help them achieve equality with others. This includes things such as university entry quotas for Maori and Pacific people. Learn more and read our Guideline to measuring equality here.

What you can do about racial harassment?

You should firstly keep a record of incidents you find offensive. It's also a good idea to talk it over with someone you trust and who will keep the information confidential. This may help clarify your best course of action.

Speak to the person who is harassing you and tell them you want them to stop, otherwise you will complain. You can do this in person, in a letter, or with a union or other representative. If this doesn’t work, or is inappropriate, you can seek advice and assistance from:

  • a racial harassment contact person (many workplaces have a harassment policy)
  • a manager or school counsellor
  • the Human Rights Commission
  • your union representative or a lawyer
  • a professional disciplinary body
  • the police
  • the Employment Relations Service (if you have been harassed at work).
  • Phone 0800 20 90 20.

Other organisations and individuals who can help you with initial advice and clarification include your local Member of Parliament or Community Law Centre.

What the Commission can do?

We can advise you on whether your complaint is covered by the Human Rights Act and if it is we can help with mediation.

If mediation doesn’t work, we can advise you on your legal options. Learn more in our Enquiries, Complaints and Support section, or call our Infoline on 0800 496 877. Our service is free and confidential.

The main focus of our service is on resolving disputes involving unlawful discrimination, such as on the grounds of age, gender, ethnicity, or disability. But we can also help you with advice on broader human rights issues.

What happens if you think your human rights have been breached?

If you think you have suffered a breach of your human rights, our Enquiries, Complaints and Support section has more information about how we can help, and your options.

If your complaint involves discrimination and we cannot resolve it informally, you will be entitled to ask the Office of Human Rights Proceedings to provide you with free legal representation.

If you have further questions about the laws that protect your rights you can view our Frequently Asked Questions section.