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New Human Rights Law Welcomed

30/12/01

New Human Rights Law Welcomed

Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan and Race Relations Conciliator Gregory Fortuin have welcomed the passing into law of the Human Rights Amendment Act this week.

“The new law strengthens human rights in New Zealand by making Government itself more accountable, streamlining the handling of disputes and amalgamating the two offices of human rights and race relations” said Ms Noonan.

“These changes can only allow us to improve on our capacity to promote and protect human rights in New Zealand”.

Ms Noonan added that the two primary functions now specified in the Act provide the new Commission with a clear focus with which to address systemic human rights issues. These functions are to:

- Advocate and promote respect for, and an understanding and appreciation of, human rights in New Zealand society.

- Encourage the maintenance and development of harmonious relations between individuals and among the diverse groups in New Zealand society.

Mr Fortuin said that fears that the work of the Race Relations Office would disappear are unfounded.

“Merging the two organisations recognises that discrimination takes many forms and it is not always simple to separate out race from religion for example; New Zealanders no longer have to make such distinctions when pursuing concerns about both human rights and race relations.

The new Commission will include a race relations team, which will be led by the Race Relations Commissioner, underlining the new organisations continuing commitment to race and ethnic relations.

Ms Noonan emphasized that, while the new Commission will focus on systemic issues rather than individual complaints, the interests of individuals and small groups will not be overlooked.

“The new legislation is intended to strengthen human rights protections for all New Zealanders and, now that the changes required by the legislation have been finalised, the new Commission will be working hard to provide services - such as a revamped disputes resolution service - to achieve its new goals”.

Besides joining up the two existing organisations and introducing a new system for handling complaints, the Act also:

- Establishes an Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner who will be a member of the Human Rights Commission and provide leadership on EEO issues in a similar way to the Race Relations Commissioner.

- Disestablishes the role of the Proceedings Commissioner and creates a separate Office for Human Rights Proceedings to pursue litigation when the Commission’s efforts at mediation have not succeeded.

- Replaces the Complaints Review Tribunal with a Human Rights Tribunal which is empowered to make a Declaration of Inconsistency when it finds Government laws and regulations that discriminate. The Tribunal can not overturn the will of Parliament but a Declaration of Inconsistency must be reported to Parliament by the responsible Minister along with advice on what the executive’s response will be.

- Gives the new Commission responsibility for the development of a National Plan of Action for human rights in New Zealand.

- Empowers the new Commission to promote by research, education, and discussion a better understanding of the human rights dimensions of the Treaty of Waitangi and their relationship with domestic and international human rights law.

Ms Noonan and Mr Fortuin said that Commissioners and staff of both the Commission and the Race Relations Office are looking forward to working on the changes contained in the Bill.

“We are all excited about getting on with the job of fulfilling the challenging directives set out for us in the new Act - developing a robust human rights culture and promoting harmonious diversity which will benefit everyone in this country.”

For further details call Miriam Bell, Human Rights Commission Communications Officer on 09 375 8627.


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