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Lack Of Human Rights Awareness Impedes Justice


Lack of Awareness of Human Rights impedes Social Justice

By Anthony Ravlich, Human Rights Educator, The New Zealand Council of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Inc.


While the Labour government’s recent budget redistributes some of the wealth back to low and middle income families there is little assurance at present that some future government will not reverse the process.

However the Human Rights Commission’s New Zealand Plan of Action for Human Rights, launched on 10 Dec 2002 and due to make final recommendations to cabinet next year, may provide an answer to this insecure situation for the less well off. A central component of the action plan is economic, social and cultural rights.

If these little known human rights were to be protected in New Zealand law as are civil and political rights (contained in the common law, Human Rights Act 1993 and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990) it would make any reversal of the Labour government’s economic redistribution much more difficult because it could involve infringing these economic, social and cultural rights. What government likes to be seen as infringing or taking away people’s human rights?

Civil and political rights, which promote freedom and democracy, include non-discrimination, freedom of speech and association, the right to a fair trial and democratic rights. Economic, social and cultural rights, which promote social justice, include the rights to employment, fair wages, health, housing, education and an adequate standard of living.

A major barrier to economic, social and cultural rights being included in law appears to be the lack of awareness of these human rights by ordinary New Zealanders. This information seems to have been deliberately kept from them.

Although economic, social and cultural rights have formed part of the social studies curriculum of schools since 2003 section 5(a) of the Human Rights Act 1993 also required that the Human Rights Commission educate people in economic, social and cultural rights, but from the acts inception until the present action plan the Human Rights Commission openly admits that successive governments have refused to fund this education.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer in an address to the International Law Association on 30 April 1998 stated that under the United Nations Charter governments ‘have a legal duty to promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms’. Without sufficient awareness of these human rights New Zealanders are unlikely to fight for them.

The information kit of the action plan states it seeks ‘broad-based public participation’ to find out ‘how well human rights are protected’ and ‘what actions are needed to make improvements’.

According to Kathy Lys, Consultation Facilitator for the action plan, the main areas of participation were the facilitated consultation meetings involving 3144 individuals, the web-based survey involving 14 groups and 158 individuals, the employment outreach project involving 42 organisations and groups and 511 individuals and the Children’s rights project involving 745 individuals.

However a random sample of the Auckland telephone directory conducted by the present writer found that only 4 out of 50 individuals contacted had heard of the action plan.

According to a statistical consultant at the University of Auckland: “If only 4 people from a random sample of 50 have heard of something we can say with a high level of statistical confidence that the proportion of people in the population as a whole who have heard of it is below 20%”.
In addition 23 citizen’s advice bureaus in the Auckland Region were contacted.

Twenty-one of those on telephone duty had not heard of the action plan and none of the bureaus had any information on it. There also seems to have been very little media coverage. For instance, Index New Zealand, at the Auckland Public library also lists articles written by New Zealand magazines and newspapers but nothing could be found on the action plan. It is also interesting to note that the index cites 1221 articles written on civil rights since 2002 but since 1996 only 16 articles had been written on economic, social and cultural rights.

Given the latter’s inclusion in the action plan and schools and the potential for these rights to be eventually included in law it is surprising that the media have not given greater exposure to these human rights particularly over the past year. About the closest New Zealand has got to having economic, social and cultural rights in law, was in 1986 when the Justice and Law Reform Select Committee was considering the White Paper’s proposal for a Bill of Rights. The Committee’s final report suggested that a bill of rights should include key economic, social and cultural rights.

This recommendation was however rejected in the Parliamentary debate on the Bill. According to Paul Hunt, formerly New Zealand’s independent expert on the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including an adequate standard of living in human rights law could have averted the 1991 benefit cuts. He states in his book Reclaiming Social Rights (1996): “In April 1991, the New Zealand government introduced cuts in welfare.

According to the Human Rights Commission, the reduced rates brought some beneficiaries below the Treasury’s own “income adequacy” level. If New Zealand law provided that individuals have a right to an adequate standard of living, why could a court not declare that the cuts were unlawful because they violate this right?”

Both sets of human rights are contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and were ratified by New Zealand under international law in 1978. At the United Nations both sets of human rights are regarded, at least in terms of rhetoric, as being of equal status (Vienna Declaration 1993, Limburg Principles 1987).

A status report on the action plan, giving the findings so far, will be completed this month followed by a further period of public participation. This could be people’s last opportunity to have their say on the action plan and economic, social and cultural rights.


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