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Commission On Human Rights Opens Session On ET

24 September 1999

Press Release
HR/CN/975

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COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS OPENS SPECIAL SESSION ON EAST TIMOR

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Human Rights Violations Condemned; Legitimacy of Session Questioned; Call Made for Commission of Inquiry


(Reissued as received.)

GENEVA, 23 September (UN Information Service) -- The Commission on Human Rights this afternoon began a special session on the situation in East Timor as the High Commissioner for Human Rights and a series of countries condemned human-rights violations on the island following a referendum in which East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia.

The High Commissioner, Mary Robinson, said there was overwhelming evidence that there had been a deliberate, vicious and systematic campaign of gross violations of human rights in East Timor, including mass killings, forcible expulsions, violence against women and a breakdown of law and order. The extreme violence, she said, was initiated by different militia groups, in which elements of security forces were also involved.

A report that stemmed from her visit to the region last week concluded that an international commission of inquiry into the violations should be established so that those responsible could be brought to justice. It also recommended that immediate access be assured to aid agencies to provide assistance to those in dire need. Further, the report maintained that cooperation from the Government of Indonesia with the United Nations was vital to ensure effective protection of human rights all people in East Timor.

Robinson and other speakers said that the seriousness of the situation was illustrated by the calling of a special session -- only the fourth in the Commission's 50-year history. The Commission also met in special session in 1992 and 1993 to consider the situation in the former Yugoslavia, and in 1994 to discuss the situation in Rwanda.

At the outset of this afternoon's meeting there was a lengthy debate about the legitimacy of the session. Representatives of the Asian Group and of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with a representative of Indonesia, insisted that the session was being held in violation of established rules, since the deadline for obtaining assent to the session from a majority of Commission member States had passed at 6 p.m., September 16 without the required 27 positive responses in writing being received. The fact that the session was still being held, the Indonesian delegate said, called into question the impartiality of the Commission. Bertrand Ramcharan, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, responded that the Government of Rwanda had confirmed in writing that it had made a call at 5:30 p.m. Geneva time on 16 September communicating an affirmative response to the proposal for a special session and indicating that it was having technical difficulties in sending a written response; that the advice of the United Nations Legal Counsel was that the Rwandan response, which amounted to the required 27th vote in favour of the special session, was timely; that the Secretariat had consulted members of the Commission for guidance on how the Rwandan response should be treated; and that a majority of 28 members had accepted the timeliness of the Rwandan response. The Deputy High Commissioner insisted that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had acted in all objectivity and impartiality, fully observing the required procedure.

Other countries, including Portugal, which had requested the special session, said the main task of the Commission was to monitor human rights situations in the world. To oppose the special session would be to deny the Commission of one of its most basic functions, the Portuguese representative said.

And Finland, speaking on behalf of the European Union (EU) and countries of Eastern and Central Europe associated with the EU, spoke in support of the session and of the proposed establishment of an international commission of inquiry into human-rights violations in East Timor.

Other speakers addressed the special session representing Sri Lanka (on behalf of the Asian Group), Philippines (on behalf of ASEAN), Cuba, China, Japan, India, Germany, Chile, South Africa, Canada, Guatemala, India, the Republic of Korea, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Brazil, and the Holy See.

India and Pakistan spoke in right of reply.

The special session of the Commission will reconvene at 10 a.m. Friday, 24 September.

Statements

ANNE ANDERSON, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights, said the special session was both serious and unusual; the fact that a special session has been called for only the fourth time in the Commission's history reflected the gravity of the events that had unfolded in East Timor. The discussion should be imbued with human-rights values and should be founded upon a human- rights perspective. The discussion would most likely be difficult and perhaps fraught with procedural complications, but a clear sense of common purpose could hopefully be achieved.

MARY ROBINSON, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said for only the fourth time in its history, the Commission had come together to respond to an emergency situation in the field of human rights. The basic facts of the situation were known. On 30 August 1999, the population of East Timor had participated in a popular consultation on the future of the territory. The result was an overwhelming vote for independence. To the great regret and concern of the watching world, this consultation was not followed on the ground by a constructive implementation of the terms of the agreements of 5 May, which set the referendum process in motion. Instead, extreme violence was initiated by different militia groups, in which elements of the security forces were also involved. The violence threatened the lives of the Timorese people, in particular those who supported the independence of East Timor, as well as United Nations and other international staff, and journalists covering the events.

Thousands of East Timorese were expelled or fled from the territory and thousands of others took refuge in the hills. It was not yet known the total number of those who were killed, separated from their families, or deported, nor the full extent of property destroyed. Yet available information showed clearly that gross human-rights violations had been committed in East Timor, affecting its entire population and territory. The Commission had before it her report of 17 September on the alleged and reported violations.

The report offered an account of a breakdown of law and order by militia members who terrorized and murdered unarmed civilians, burned houses, displaced large numbers of people, and intimidated, threatened, and attacked personnel of international organizations. There were also reports of mass killings targeting pro-independence activists; forcible expulsions of as many as 200,000 people; violence against women, including rape and sexual assaults; enforced and involuntary disappearances of a significant number of people; displaced persons; looting and burning of property; and the expulsion of journalists, who had also been targeted for violence.

There was overwhelming evidence that East Timor had seen a deliberate, vicious and systematic campaign of gross violations of human rights, the High Commissioner said. An international commission of inquiry into the violations must be established so that those responsible were brought to justice, and immediate access must be assured to aid agencies to get assistance to those in dire need. Secure conditions must be created for the safe exercise of the function of humanitarian aid agencies and their staff. The cooperation of the Government of Indonesia with the United Nations was vital to ensure effective protection of human rights to all the people in East Timor in the transition process to the full implementation of the agreements of 5 May 1999. The tasks facing East Timor were enormous. So, too, were the responsibilities facing the United Nations. Yet the combined efforts of the population and the international community could and must produce results. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was determined to provide technical assistance in the framework of the programme of the United Nations Mission to East Timor (UNAMET), in cooperation with the East Timorese authorities and other partners, including international and national NGOs.

HEWA S. PALIHAKKARA (Sri Lanka), speaking on behalf of the Asian Group, said members of the Asian Group were unanimously in agreement that the required majority to convene the special session had not been obtained. There was also no provision in the relevant procedures to conduct a second round of voting. No prior consultations had been held with the member States of the region. The procedure for the inquiry undertaken in this case pursuant to Economic and Social Council decision 1993/286 in relation to Commission special sessions had not been transparent. These concerns could erode the confidence of member States in the Asian region about the operations of the Commission.

The Government of Indonesia had cooperated with the United Nations by receiving peacekeeping forces to stabilize the situation in East Timor. When a Government demonstrated its manifest cooperation on specific measures, no further measures needed to be taken in a situation of stability and security arising from the ongoing activities in the country concerned. The member States of the Asian Group wished to record their strong reservations concerning the procedure by which the special session had been convened. DENIS LEPATAN (Philippines), speaking on behalf of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) said it was of the opinion that the Commission on Human Rights was a body which drew its legitimacy and credibility from the strength of the moral positions which it took. As such, it must at all times ensure that its decisions were based on the highest degree of circumspection and at all times obeyed the spirit and letter of its own rules of procedure. The same standards should also apply to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Then, and only then, could human rights be a truly collaborative effort between all, eschewing double standards, politicization and confrontation. It was felt that the manner in which this special session was convened left much to be desired in terms of objectivity, transparency and accountability. Indeed, given the fast evolving situation on the ground, it could prove to be counterproductive to the aims, which it sought to serve.

The Government of Indonesia had time and again stated its strong commitment to the full implementation of the New York Agreement of 5 May 1999, accepting and respecting the result of the popular consultation and upholding its responsibility to maintain security, law and order in the territory. The presence of the International Forces in East Timor (INTERFET), to whom some ASEAN countries had contributed personnel, was the latest manifestation of this commitment. The Government of Indonesia had also extended its close cooperation to the international humanitarian agencies.

HASSAN WIRAJUDA (Indonesia) said the special session was not in compliance with the Economic and Social Council charter, as the decision to hold the meeting did not take due consideration of the deadline required to obtain a majority by member States. The fact that the meeting was being held raised in question the impartiality of the special session. The notion of impartiality, objectivity and adherence to the rules of procedure should be respected by the Commission. In spite of these concerns, the Government of Indonesia was prepared to cooperate.

CARLOS AMAT FLORES (Cuba) said there was no room for doubt what the requirements were for time and form for calling a special session. There was no doubt that the request had to be received in writing no later than 6 p.m. on 16 September in the Office of the High Commissioner. This was not the case. A lot had been said in this room about the rule of law. The Commission should be consistent. This was legally inappropriate. This body could only be effective if its rules and procedures were applied. The principles of impartiality should prevail.

REN YISHENG (China) said that his Government was in agreement with the Asian Group. The decision to hold the special session was taken without due compliance with the rules of procedure and could lead to a negative impact on the human-rights activities of the United Nations. The Commission should not decide on any issue, which fell into the competence of the member States. Actions of the international community on the issue of East Timor should be conducive to the stabilization of the situation.

A vote in East Timor was taken; according to all sides, the referendum was deemed fair. At the request of the Indonesian Government, the Security Council authorized a multi-national peacekeeping force to enter East Timor and take charge of the local security situation there. It was hoped that stability would return to East Timor.

BETRAND RAMCHARAN, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said there was a tremendous amount of respect for each member of the Commission who had taken the floor. In dealing with the different stages of the procedure for calling a special session, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had strived to be perfectly impartial and objective. Factual information was made available to members at all stages. Steps had been taken to ensure full transparency. At all times, the Office was acting in the open.

The Government of Rwanda had confirmed in writing that it had made a call at 5:30 p.m. Geneva time on 16 September communicating an affirmative response to the proposal for a special session and indicating that it was having technical difficulties in sending a written response. The advice of the United Nations Legal Counsel was that the Rwandan response, which amounted to the required 27th vote in favour of the special session, was timely. The Secretariat had consulted members of the Commission for guidance on how the Rwandan response should be treated and a majority of 28 members had accepted the timeliness of the Rwandan response. The OHCHR had acted in all objectivity and impartiality, fully observing the required procedure.

NOBUTOSHI AKAO (Japan) said the delegation believed that the human rights situation in East Timor was a legitimate concern of the Commission, but the decision to hold the special session had not been taken in a spirit of dialogue and consensus.

FRANCISCO SEIXAS DA COSTA (Portugal) said that when last January Indonesian President Habibie accepted that the people of East Timor should be consulted about their future, the international community believed that the East Timor issue would at last be settled. The signature of the tripartite agreement in New York on 5 May was a decisive step in the right direction, establishing the framework for the popular consultation in East Timor. It had been welcomed by the world at large. Unfortunately, Indonesia did not comply with its obligations under the agreement. Even before the consultation process started, the militias, under the benevolent eye of members of the Indonesian armed forces and police, conducted a campaign of terror, trying to intimidate the population in order to prevent the ballot.

Nevertheless, a massive participation by the East Timorese resulted in an overwhelming choice for independence. Once the results were known and the way for independence became irreversible, East Timor was faced with a systematic pattern of terror and violations of all basic human rights. What had happened in East Timor over the last few weeks was a clear campaign to silence the large majority who had refused integration. Should the Commission on Human Rights ignore the whole issue, as some argued, just because other United Nations bodies were addressing the question of peace and security? That would be denying one of the main tasks of the Commission -- to monitor human rights around the world and to denounce serious violations wherever they might occur.

HASSAN WIRAJUDA (Indonesia) said that on 27 January 1999, the Indonesian Government had said that if autonomy were rejected by East Timor, independence would still be granted. This led to the historic signing on 5 May.

The Government deplored the violence that had erupted in East Timor. On 7 September, the Government had announced a state of emergency in East Timor, and it was trying to help the internally displaced persons. The Government last night had established a fact-finding commission to compile information on human- rights violations and bring the perpetrators to justice. It was important to ensure that this august body not do anything that would open old wounds and exacerbate problems in the territory. This was a time for cooperation and goodwill, and there was no time for grandstanding or scapegoating.

NOBUTOSHI AKAO (Japan) said that the Government of Japan agreed that the situation in East Timor was of concern. However, the timing of the session should have been more carefully considered. The meeting was also being convened without the unanimous consensus of all member States in Asia.

The session should be impartial and transparent. Human rights were universal, but measures to carry them out were not always impartial. The session had greatly damaged the confidence of Governments about the activities of the Commission. Similar procedural entanglements should not happen in the future. The situation in East Timor had deteriorated. The Government of Japan had contributed to the humanitarian assistance effort in East Timor. All people responsible for the violence in East Timor should be punished and security -- in coordination with the Indonesian Government -- should be restored as soon as possible.

PEKKA HUHTANIEMI (Finland), speaking on behalf of the European Union (EU) and countries of Eastern and Central Europe associated with the EU, said all States had an obligation to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms as stated in the Charter of the United Nations and as elaborated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human-rights instruments. The EU considered that, in accordance with the principle of the universality of human rights, monitoring and addressing the human rights situation in individual countries was an important part of United Nations work. The Commission was the appropriate forum for considering individual-country situations.

The human-rights situation in East Timor still required urgent attention from the international community. Extremely grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law had been committed, including widespread violations and abuses of the right to life, personal security, physical integrity and to the right of property. Unarmed civilians had been murdered, houses had been destroyed, a large number of people had been displaced. These violations had created an atmosphere of terror. The EU condemned in the strongest terms the atrocities committed in East Timor and called for creation of an international commission of inquiry into these acts. The EU recalled the responsibility of the Government of Indonesia to maintain peace and security.

WALTER LEWALTER (Germany) said the German Government supported the convening of the special session. The tragic circumstances in East Timor required a swift response. Efforts by the United Nations to secure security there were welcomed; this session provided the opportunity to make a complimentary response.

The report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights showed that systematic human-rights violations had been carried out; the effective displacement of the entire population was one of the results. An inquiry should be conducted and those responsible should be brought to justice. All mechanisms at the disposal of the Commission should be used to bring about an environment where human rights could be respected. The Government of Indonesia should take all measures to restore security and should respect the referendum undertaken by the Timorese people. All refugees and displaced persons should be guaranteed their free and safe return. An enormous reconstruction effort was needed and the Government of Germany was prepared to contribute to it. FERNANDO LABBE (Chile) said the request by Portugal to convene this special session should be accepted. The Commission could not refrain from expressing itself in the face of the seriousness of the events that were occurring in East Timor.

The Government of Chile expressed its concern at these events, and hoped that this meeting would have a consensus outcome. It was extremely important that the Commission act by consensus in situations like this.

SIPHO NENE (South Africa) said the Commission must take appropriate measures to intervene in human-rights situations such as the one seen in East Timor. The people of East Timor voted to determine their own future but had not been able to taste their new-found freedom. The acts taken against them must surely constitute a crime against humanity. The collective wisdom of the Commission must bring about an end to the violence and punish the perpetrators.

The United Nations Secretary-General, in cooperation with the Government of Indonesia, must act to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Government of Indonesia, in accordance with its obligation under the May 5 agreements, should play an integral role in promoting tolerance and lasting peace and stability in the transition to independence in East Timor. The international community should provide support and assistance. The Government of South Africa commended the urgency with which the international community had dealt with the situation in East Timor and hoped this norm would be maintained in the future.

CHRISTOPHER WESTDAL (Canada) said the Government had recognized the positive and important step taken by President Habibie when he entered into the 5 May agreement. Events since then, however, had shocked and appalled everybody. The High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that there was overwhelming evidence that human rights had been deliberately, viciously and systematically violated in East Timor. That was why this special session was convened.

Canada was gravely concerned by the treatment of East Timorese by pro- integration militias with the support and assistance of some elements of the Indonesian military and police. There was clearly a systematic campaign to kill pro-independence activists, clergy and community leaders and to terrorize the population. Displaced women in camps in West Timor remained vulnerable to sexual violence, given reports that, with the arrival of the multi-national force, militia members had been quitting East Timor for West Timor. The Commission could count on Canada to help with the international response to the crisis.

LUIS ALBERTO PADILLA (Guatemala) said that independent States had the right to sovereignty and freedom from foreign interference. Yet sovereignty also required a State to protect its citizens. When one or both of these responsibilities were not honoured, security in the country -- as well as perhaps in the world -- could be threatened. This was why an international peacekeeping force was necessary in East Timor.

The Commission should investigate what had occurred in East Timor and consider how it happened and who was responsible so that the full weight of the law was brought to bear against those responsible. An inquiry was necessary and a report should be prepared. The basic principles of international human rights law and humanitarian law should be preserved and measures for conflict resolution should be considered. SAVITRI KUNADI (India) said this was an unprecedented situation. The special session was taking place surrounded by serious questions both regarding the procedural aspects and the utility of the session itself. India endorsed the statement made earlier by the Asian Group. India was firmly committed to the promotion and protection of all human rights and felt concern over the appalling violence that had followed the popular consultation in East Timor. The consultation, it must not be forgotten, had been made possible by Indonesia's cooperation. The killings and intimidation were deplored, but the world should not presume to preach to Indonesia about civilized and responsible behaviour. Indonesia was an ancient civilization and the Government there had extended its cooperation to bring the situation in East Timor under control.

India had serious doubts about the usefulness of a special session in this case, particularly when the United Nations Security Council had been seized of the matter. Developments in recent days as a result of the initiatives taken by the Security Council -- which had received the cooperation of the Indonesian Government -- to restore law and order clearly showed the futility of the special session.

CARLOS AMAT FLORES (Cuba) said the Cuban Government welcomed the statement of the Government of Indonesia in which it reaffirmed its commitment to the May 5 agreement. However, the Government of Indonesia should also strictly comply with the requirements of the international peacekeeping force -- a force which should operate in strict neutrality. The Government of Cuba was prepared to contribute medical personnel to these peacekeeping forces.

The international community should focus on restoring order, meeting the basic human needs of people, and creating conditions which would allow the Timorese people to return home. Once normality was restored, it would be up to the people of East Timor to determine, without external interference, the political and social structure they wished to have and to decide what kind of assistance -- bilateral or otherwise -- the new country might wish to receive.

MAN-SOON CHANG (Republic of Korea) said the referendum of 30 August was a truly remarkable event. The Government of Indonesia finally had agreed to an arrangement to which it had been strongly opposed for such a long time. The people of East Timor had given a clear message as to the future of their land. The international community was impressed with this turn of events and wished well for the future of a territory that had witnessed so much difficulty in the past several decades.

What ensued in East Timor afterwards, however, were mass killings, displacement of a large number of people and rampant violations of basic human rights. The call for a special session of the Commission provided an opportunity to ponder the role of the Commission in the overall context of the situation in East Timor and the role of the United Nations system at large. Restoring peace and security in East Timor was the first goal, and should remain so for some time to come. Efforts should also be made to bring basic humanitarian assistance to almost the whole population of East Timor. The forum here should not be one of confrontation. It should be a discussion to help achieve common goals in East Timor.

IFTEKHAR AHMED CHOWDURY (Bangladesh) said the Bangladeshi delegation wished to associate itself with the statement made on behalf of the Asian Group. Bangladesh had a track record of upholding human rights.

While the country was concerned about the happenings in East Timor, Bangladesh had every confidence that the Government of Indonesia would attempt to restore human rights and punish the perpetrators. However, Indonesia must be kept positively engaged; this should be kept in mind as the session progressed.

TEHMINA JANJUA (Pakistan) said Pakistan welcomed the fact that Indonesia had accepted the right of self-determination for the people of East Timor. The successful conclusion of the referendum was a landmark event. But it was painful to see the tragic loss of life resulting from the strife that had followed the referendum.

The desire to ensure that the process initiated in East Timor not be jeopardized had weighed heavily in determining Pakistan's response to calls for a special session of the Commission. Pakistan did not believe that at this stage any decision of the Commission would help in addressing the political and human rights situation in East Timor. On the contrary, it could lead to further deterioration of the situation and make the task of Indonesian authorities more difficult. If this situation merited a special session, what would be done with regards to situations where gross and systematic violations of human rights continued to take place daily, as in Kashmir?

CELSO NUNES AMORIM (Brazil) said the Brazilian delegation welcomed the interest the High Commissioner had shown in the plight of the people of East Timor and commended her forward-looking approach. The magnitude of the human rights violations committed in East Timor fully justified the special session.

Economic reconstruction, the protection of human rights and the promotion of institution building would be needed. Brazil intended to remain fully engaged in the situation. The Security Council's decision to send a peacekeeping force to the region was welcomed; the decision legitimized the presence of troops. Brazil was concerned with the adequate distribution of responsibilities within the United Nations. The Commission on Human Rights should not shirk its mandate; omission of the Commission's role in this situation would caste doubt on its credibility.

GIUSEPPE BERTELLO (Holy See) said the Holy See welcomed the special session to investigate the human-rights violations in East Timor. The facts had been exposed to the eyes of everyone. Once again, television had brought into everybody's home pictures that nobody wanted to see again. Following Rwanda and Kosovo, it was sad that mankind had been incapable of learning the lessons of history.

The Holy See had never ceased to encourage a dialogue between Portugal and Indonesia. There was supposed to be a peaceful settlement to the question this year. When violence broke out, the Holy See insisted that the UN deploy forces. It was not just with a declaration that a tragedy could be put to an end. It was urgent for humanitarian international aid to reach displaced persons immediately.

Rights of reply

R. N. PRASAD (India), speaking in right of reply, said that even in this special session, it was regrettable that Pakistan was unable to rein in its hostility towards India. Kashmir was an important part of India. This was ratified by the Kashmiri Assembly, and the people of Kashmir enjoyed all the rights guaranteed in the Indian Constitution. The people living under the illegal Pakistani occupation, however, did not enjoy such rights. Pakistan always resorted to force and violence. Pakistan had been encouraging terrorist acts against India, openly threatening anyone who did not agree with the Pakistani agenda.

TEHMINA JANJUA (Pakistan), speaking in right of reply, said the right to self-determination was a sacred principle. While the people of East Timor had finally received it, the people of Kashmir had not. Pakistan's consideration of the human-rights situation in Jammu and Kashmir was not interference in the internal affairs of India. What was right for the people of East Timor was also right for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. People's aspirations for freedom could not be suppressed indefinitely. The United Nations was best placed to oversee the right to self-determination. Massive violations of human rights should not be allowed to stand, in Timor or in Kashmir. A special session should be held on the situation in Kashmir.


ENDS

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