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Sharples: The right not to be subjected to torture

Crimes of Torture Amendment Bill
Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader, Maori Party
Member of Parliament for Tamaki Makaurau
Tuesday 21 November, 2006; 9.40pm

Mr Speaker, one doesn’t need to go far in Aotearoa to witness the cruel, inhuman face of torture.

Torture – the infliction of severe bodily pain especially as a punishment or means of coercion is a breach of the basic, fundamental rights to life that we would defend for all citizens of Aotearoa.

The Bill of Rights specifically includes the right ‘not to be subjected to torture or cruel treatment’.
Yet despite it being in legislation and regulation, our performance to date is far from good.

Mr Speaker, the Maori Party comes to this House knowing that our national crisis is also the focus of international shame.

It is not as this is the first time the international spotlight has identified our failings as a nation in the upholding of basis human rights.

At Mangaroa Prison in 1991 and 1993; abuse and injustices were recorded of such magnitude that they were subsequently reported to the United Nations committees for human rights and torture.

The reports revealed that some of our prisoners, New Zealand prisoners, were held naked in outdoor yards overnight and denied medical attention for injuries including bruising, black eyes and cracked ribs.

A later ministerial inquiry found the prison used informal squads of guards known as ‘designated hitters’ to restrain and beat inmates in a series of systematic beatings. Eventually twelve guards were sacked, and the Government issued a formal apology to the prisoners involved.

There was a disturbing implication, that because of the crimes that these inmates had committed were so grotesque, that the behaviour of the prison guards was almost seen as acceptable.

Mr Speaker, such experiences, indicate how vulnerable the state of democracy is in Aotearoa.

It was as a direct consequence of the ghastly events at Mangaroa, that the 1998 report of the United Committee Against Torture on New Zealand stated

“The Committee considers it important to strengthen the supervision of the prisons to prevent the misuse and abuse of power by prison personnel (para.177)”.

And yet, how could it come to be, that the very same year, 1998, the Paremoremo Prison behaviour management regime – BMR was set up.
A unit which provoked nine inmates to eventually turn to the High Court, taking their case against treatment which they described as constituting psychological torture and kept in inhumane conditions.

The prisoners described being held in solitary confinement as punishment, held for too long, in small windowless cells, some for a period of up to two years. The cells lacked adequate ventilation of natural light; the inmates were forbidden outside to exercise.

How could it be that the recommendations from the UN committee against torture were breached to such an extent?
But it gets worse.

One year later, another unit was set up in a Canterbury Prison, supposedly to tackle crime in prisons. The unit, famously labelled the ‘goon squad’, was scrapped in 2000 following the death of a prisoner while being moved by the unit and amidst claims that its unorthodox methods intimidated both inmates and other officers.

Mr Speaker, what sort of system do we have operating in our so-called ‘Corrections’ department, when year after year, it is their own misadministration that needs correcting?

How could it be that the BMR and the Goon Squad – were set up only after the 1998 report which explicitly directed New Zealand to prevent the misuse and abuse of power by prison personnel?

Was it arrogance? Ignorance? Or simply a case of didn’t care?

Other concerns raised by the United Nations Committee against Torture have been about some aspects of youth justice in New Zealand, including children being held in police cells, the mixing of young prisoners with adults, and the low age of criminal responsibility.

And yet, New Zealand had already sought to make a Reservation to article 37(c) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child about mixing young people and adults in prisons.

What this meant in practice was that at the end of 2002, there were 99 children under seventeen years of age in prison custody.

Eight of the boys were mixed with adults, and all thirteen girls under 18 remained mixed with adult women.

I have to ask, what sort of experience are we looking for our young children, if we actually go out of our way (by introducing a reservation to the Convention) to enable young people to cohabit with adults in prisons.

We do, of course, support the intervention just two months ago, that the Minister of Corrections made following the tragic death of a young prisoner in transit, to ensure prisoners aged under 18 are always kept separate from adults while being transported.

But the crunch issue remains that the mixing of young people with adults remains a central problem in our prisons.

The Maori Party supports the intention of this Bill, in that it will raise the heat on the need for transparency and greater public scrutiny on practices such as this.

And we are particularly in support of the opportunity for greater monitoring of institutions where people are deprived of liberty, in the special case of young people.

In my research into this Bill, I looked through the accounts from the Working Group on Youth Justice who had consulted with forty young people throughout 2002 and 2003 who had been deprived of their liberty and held in prison or specialist Child, Youth and Family Service facilities.

The experiences of children deprived of their liberty included:

- lack of access to whanau, youth workers and support staff;

- lack of information about their basic rights in the justice system;

- lack of safety in prison – including receiving intimidatory threats and stand over tactics from other young people;

- lack of opportunity for educational support and restrictive obstacles created by the tuition fees;

- lack of access to mental health care support; or physical health care – long waiting lists, harassment and delays were frequently cited;

- Few if any cultural or social opportunities were available. In fact, to my horror, I learnt that young prisoners had been prohibited from speaking, chanting or singing in reo Maori.

As a result of these interviews, the Working Group on Youth Justice concluded that ‘slow progress’ was being made in meeting the needs of young people deprived of liberty. Slow progress – now that’s an oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one.

Mr Speaker, the shame of woeful compliance with international conventions is not a new occurrence in this nation.

In March of this Year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur reported on the association of Human rights abuses in relation to indigenous peoples in Aotearoa. His report states that the Maori ancestral land base has been appropriated by a variety of historical processes, including voluntary sale, fraudulent purchase, confiscation or alienations of land through legislative subterfuge.

The Special Rapporteur concludes that the inherent rights of Maori were not constitutionally recognized; and identified that “underlying institutional and structural discrimination that Maori have long suffered” were still being inadequately addressed.

To our great disgrace as a nation, there has not, yet, been any sort of response which can serve to restore honour to the name of Aotearoa.

Despite our great disillusionment with a Government that discredits the UN in the way that has been done regarding the report of Professor Stavenhagen, the Maori Party will not deny the opportunity for the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Degrading or Inhuman Forms of Treatment or Punishment to be received.

We are hopeful that the Government will this time, take seriously, the urgent need to eliminate cruel, degrading or inhuman forms of treatment or punishment.

We are hopeful that in the next Committee Against Torture report, the events and crisis state of our Corrections system will have been addressed in a way which is meaningful, sustainable, and involves all parties.

We must have hope – to not do so, would be to admit the situation is hopeless, and we will never, ever concede to that.


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