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Burton: Crimes of Torture Amendment Bill

First Reading of Crimes of Torture Amendment Bill

This Bill will ensure that for generations of New Zealanders, now and in the future, torture will remain an unthinkable possibility in a country that treats this practice with the contempt it deserves.

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I move that the Crimes of Torture Amendment Bill be now read a first time. It is my intention to move that the Crimes of Torture Amendment Bill be referred to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee for consideration.

The Bill is an important piece of legislation. It provides for compliance with the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In doing so, the Bill sends a clear message to all those who commit torture and other forms of ill-treatment that New Zealanders find these practices abhorrent and intolerable.

The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee has conducted an international treaty examination of the Optional Protocol and concluded that, and I quote, "ratification will reinforce New Zealand's reputation as a country that has a strong and unfaltering commitment to human rights and is prepared to take steps in order to ensure human rights are protected in New Zealand and the international community."

For many New Zealanders, torture is a remote concept. Most of us have never experienced the fear of torture and I hope this remains the case. But despite being prohibited under international law for over fifty years, sadly torture still continues to be widespread in many parts of the world, particularly within places of detention. Persons deprived of their liberty are most at risk as they are cut off from the outside world and dependent upon the authorities for their most basic needs and rights. I am pleased to note that the New Zealand legal system already provides strong protection against torture under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the Crimes of Torture Act. The Optional Protocol provides another tool in our kit against torture and offers an innovative approach to combat torture; no other international treaty provides for concrete steps to prevent this repugnant and illegal practice occurring.

Practical experience, both in New Zealand and overseas, has shown that visits to places of detention are one of the most effective means to prevent torture and to improve conditions of detention. Visits not only have a deterrent effect but they enable experts to examine, at first hand, the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty and their conditions of detention. Many problems stem from inadequate systems which can be improved through regular monitoring. By making recommendations for improvements and establishing a continuing dialogue with detention personnel and relevant authorities, the visiting experts are able to help resolve many of the problems observed. The Optional Protocol acknowledges this by establishing a system of regular visits to places of detention carried out by complementary international and national independent expert bodies.

This focus upon prevention represents an innovative development within the United Nations' human rights system. The Optional Protocol breaks new ground by setting out, for the first time in an international instrument, criteria and safeguards for effective preventive visits by proactive international and national bodies.

The Bill is not only a measure to ensure that New Zealanders will continue to be protected against torture and other forms of ill-treatment in the future - it is a signal to others around the world that torture will not be tolerated and, with the collective efforts of the international community, can be prevented.

The Bill is another example of how this government defends and advances international human rights in the multilateral environment. It illustrates New Zealand's strong commitment to the protection and promotion of international human rights, as embodied both in international law and our own domestic law. This Bill is a positive example of how to ensure compliance with the Optional Protocol and its goal of preventing torture.

The Bill provides for a regime that enables New Zealand to comply with its obligations under the Optional Protocol and includes provisions:
·enabling an international body to visit places where people are deprived of their liberty;
·allowing the designation of one or more domestic bodies as "National Preventive Mechanisms" to also examine places of detention; and
·establishing a "Central National Preventive Mechanism" to coordinate the activities of the domestic bodies charged with monitoring places of detention in New Zealand.

Subcommittee

The first pillar of the preventive system will be a new international body, a Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee against Torture. The Optional Protocol charges the Subcommittee with making regular visits to places where people are deprived of their liberty, and to make recommendations to State Parties concerning the protection of persons deprived of their liberty against torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

The Bill enables the Subcommittee to exercise in New Zealand its functions and powers set out in the Optional Protocol. The Subcommittee will be permitted to visit any place under the Crown's jurisdiction or control where persons are deprived of their liberty, to have unrestricted access to such information as is necessary for the proper performance of its functions, and to conduct private interviews with detained persons.

The Bill also provides that, in accordance with the provisions of the Optional Protocol, members of the Subcommittee may be accompanied by one or more experts when visiting a place of detention.

After visiting places of detention, the Subcommittee will proffer recommendations and observations confidentially to the New Zealand government. The Subcommittee may publish its report, together with any comments of the government, if requested to do so by the government.

National Preventive Mechanism

The second pillar consists of a system of regular visits undertaken by national bodies to places of detention. The Optional Protocol requires each State Party to have at the domestic level at least one visiting body for the prevention of torture - these will be referred to as National Preventive Mechanisms.

The Bill authorises the Minister of Justice to designate National Preventive Mechanisms, which must be functionally independent from State authorities. New Zealand already has agencies that fit this mandate and will act in this role, such as the Ombudsmen and the Police Complaints Authority.

The functions of a National Preventive Mechanism are to:
·examine at regular intervals the conditions of detention;
·examine the treatment of detainees; and
·make any recommendations for improving the conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees with a view to preventing torture.

A National Preventive Mechanism is also required to provide at least one written report to the Minister of Justice each year on the exercise of its functions under the Bill.

Central National Preventive Mechanism

The Bill also authorises the Minister of Justice to designate a Central National Preventive Mechanism to coordinate the activities of the National Preventive Mechanisms. This central body is also charged with maintaining effective liaison with the UN Subcommittee. This will be an important role given the range of places of detention in New Zealand and the likelihood that several institutions may contribute to the role of monitoring these places for the prevention of torture. It is likely that the Human Rights Commission will have this role.

In carrying out its functions the Central Preventive Mechanism must:
·consult and liaise with and review the reports prepared by the National Preventive Mechanisms; and
·coordinate the submission of those reports to the Subcommittee.

Flowing from these tasks, the Central Preventive Mechanism also has responsibility for advising the National Preventive Mechanisms of any systemic issues arising from those reports. The body may also make recommendations to the government on any matters relating to the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment in places of detention in New Zealand.

I am confident that this Bill will enable compliance with the Optional Protocol. More importantly, I am confident that this Bill will ensure that for generations of New Zealanders, now and in the future, torture will remain an unthinkable possibility in a country that treats this practice with the contempt it deserves.

Madam Speaker, I commend this Bill to the House.

ENDS

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