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First report on state of human rights:

1 September 2004

First report on state of human rights: children and young people suffer most

Children and young people are most at risk from human rights abuses in New Zealand.

That is the major finding in the first-ever comprehensive report on the state of human rights in New Zealand released today. Chief Human Rights Commissioner Rosslyn Noonan says that better protection of children and young people was a major human rights challenge for everyone.

Ms Noonan says that overall the report, Human Rights in New Zealand Today, concludes that New Zealand meets most international human rights standards. "This country can take pride in its achievements but there are some critical areas where we are failing". "Some of the most pressing issues are those relating to the poverty and abuse experienced by a large number of New Zealand children and young people," Ms Noonan says.

Children's Commissioner Dr Cindy Kiro, whose office wrote the children's and young people's part of the report, says that almost one out of three children and young people live in poverty and New Zealand has the fifth highest rates of child deaths from maltreatment in the OECD.

"If we can get it right for this country's children, we will have succeeded in getting it right for all New Zealanders," Dr Kiro says.

Over five thousand New Zealanders contributed to the report that identifies where we must do better. "The fundamental right to be who we are and to be respected for who we are - whether a disabled person, Pakeha, Màori, Pacific, Asian, gay, lesbian, a transgender or intersex person, male, female, young or old - is still not a reality for all New Zealanders," Ms Noonan says. "Violence, bullying and harassment represent the most flagrant human rights abuses and are present in too many New Zealand homes, schools, workplaces, playgrounds and playing fields.

"It is important that individual New Zealanders not only affirm their own human rights, but accept their responsibility to defend the human rights of others."

When the Commission asked New Zealanders about what they understood by human rights it became clear that while they endorsed human rights as important, most people, including public officials, had limited knowledge about human rights in any formal sense. "However New Zealanders do value fairness, which is often expressed in terms of giving people a 'fair go'," Ms Noonan says.

"What the report shows is that human rights are for everyone and are the essential foundation of a decent society."

Key findings of the report include:

New Zealand meets international human rights standards in many respects, and is world-leading in some areas. The report shows that we have most of the elements essential for the effective protection, promotion and fulfillment of human rights. These are: * democracy; * the rule of law and an independent judiciary free of corruption; * effective Government structures; * specific processes for monitoring human rights and other forms of accountability; * recognition of the vulnerability of particular groups and individuals; and * active, involved citizens.

The most pressing issues to emerge from the report are:

* the poverty and abuse experienced by a significant number of New Zealand children and young people;
* the pervasive barriers that prevent disabled people from fully participating in society;
* the vulnerability to abuse of those in detention and institutional care; * the entrenched economic and social inequalities that continue to divide Màori and Pacific people from other New Zealanders; and
* the challenge of the place of the Treaty of Waitangi now and in the future.

New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights (NZAPHR)

The conclusions of Human Rights in New Zealand Today are being used as a basis for developing the New Zealand Action Plan for Human Rights (NZAPHR), which will be released in December. New Zealanders will be given an opportunity to have their say on the report through a public engagement process, taking place over the next two months.

The purpose of the Action Plan will be to identify practical and achievable actions for the next five years to further improve the status of human rights in New Zealand.

"Making the plan a success will require the active support, not just of central and local government, but also of business and community groups," Ms Noonan says.

"In a democratic society, the extent to which the State fulfils its human rights obligations generally reflects the extent to which its citizens insist they do."

For a copy of Human Rights in New Zealand Today: www.hrc.co.nz/actionplan (from September 1)

KEY CONCLUSIONS

The report examines a selection of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights identifying where New Zealand is already meeting and even surpassing international standards and where we need to do better.

Equality and discrimination * New Zealanders value fairness (often expressed in terms of giving people a 'fair go') and New Zealand law generally meets international standards for protecting the right to freedom from discrimination. * Better data collection is needed to measure discrimination in New Zealand. * The idea that equality means treating every one the same is widespread, but this ignores the need for positive action to ensure equality.

Children and young people * Nearly one out of three children and young people live in poverty, which restricts their access to medical care and education opportunities. * NZ has the fifth worst child death by maltreatment rate of 27 OECD countries and significant numbers of children and young people are abused or neglected. * Maori, Pacific and new migrant children and disabled children and children and young with mental health problems have difficulty accessing health, education and support services and have poorer life outcomes as a result. * Children and young people want increased respect for diverse groups within New Zealand and the elimination of all forms of discrimination against them and others * In 2003, over 50,000 children reported being bullied to the What's Up counselling service * Children and young people want increased involvement and participation in the decisions that affect their lives. * Young people want enhanced protection in the work place.

Disabled people * Disabled people are increasingly making their voices heard in central and local government and in the private sector. * In New Zealand there has been significant progress in developing a national disability strategy, but greater urgency is needed in its implementation. * Disabled people remain among the most disadvantaged citizens, including in education, income and employment. * There is a need for more public education to remove the stigma attached to disability and the prejudice and discrimination experienced by disabled people.

Civil and political rights Democratic rights * New Zealanders are able to participate in decision-making, including voting in free and fair elections, and there are many measures to ensure Government accountability. * A tension was evident between an expectation that government should follow public opinion and its obligation to respect and protect internationally agreed human rights.

The right to life, liberty and security of person * On the whole, New Zealand's legislation complies with international standards, and there are a number of mechanisms for ensuring that people are protected. * Some groups - i.e. children, women, Màori, disabled, older people, gay, lesbian and transgender people and ethnic minorities - are more likely than others to be the victims of violence, harassment and bullying.

Freedom of expression * New Zealand has legislated for freedom of expression in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act. * In New Zealand the balance is seen by many to be "about right" between freedom of expression and social responsibility and the protection of vulnerable people. * There has not been enough informed debate about this balance, including about the vulnerability of some groups to the impact of hate speech, such as young people.

The right to freedom of religion and belief * New Zealand is a secular society with a record of tolerance for religious diversity, and no specific legal restrictions on religious groups. * Some people have experienced intolerance of their religious beliefs, while others experience intolerance from religious groups.

The right to justice * New Zealanders have a high regard for the right to justice. * NZ has clear laws and a corruption-free, impartial, open, transparent legal system. * Disabled people, Màori and Pacific peoples, and children and young people experience disadvantage in realisation of the right to justice. * Justice processes are seen as costly and therefore are difficult for people on low incomes to access.

Detention * New Zealand legislation complies in most respects with international law for prison and military detainees; people detained in mental health facilities; intellectually disabled people; those in police cells; and children and young persons. * There are concerns in all of these areas, particularly for the safety of detainees, the use of sanctions such as isolation, the need for external monitoring, and the lack of data collection and reporting.

The right to asylum * New Zealand has a good record of compliance with the international human rights standards as they relate to refugees. * Concerns have been raised about the length of time that asylum seekers spend awaiting a decision on whether they can stay in New Zealand and their detention. * Settlement programmes aren't sufficiently comprehensive to meet the needs of refugees.

Economic, social and cultural rights Housing * New Zealand has a good stock of adequate housing, a low level of homelessness, legislation to protect the rights of tenants, and targeted programmes to provide housing to those who are disadvantaged. * Màori and Pacific peoples are disadvantaged in terms of affordability and habitability of housing - they are four times more likely to live in overcrowded houses than the national average. * Disabled people are disadvantaged in terms of affordability and accessibility of housing. * New Zealand houses are cold by international standards.

The right to health * NZ has strategies to make public health and healthcare services and programmes available, accessible, acceptable and of high quality. However, there remain some constraints on our ability to deliver, including cost and workforce constraints. * Màori and Pacific peoples have consistently worse health status than other groups across a number of indicators. * Services for people with early signs of mental illness (especially children and young people) and refugees with high and complex needs are inadequate.

Education * In New Zealand a range of education opportunities are available. * Formal and informal costs of education create barriers at all levels. * There are systemic disparities, including participation and achievement rates for those from poor communities, particular groups of boys, Màori, Pacific and disabled people. * There is discrimination, bullying, and harassment particularly around race, disability, sexual orientation and gender.

The right to work * There is widespread acknowledgement in New Zealand of the benefits of a job-rich economy, and that decent and meaningful employment underpins economic growth, social cohesion and the individual well-being of New Zealanders. * There is a strong framework of legislation that recognises the rights of employers and employees. * Some population groups (Màori and Pacific peoples, migrants, disabled people and older workers) still face disadvantages in the labour market. * Unpaid workers, particularly caregivers, are undervalued and often inequitably treated, despite their economic and social contributions.

The 'migrant worker' * The rights of migrant workers & their families are generally respected in NZ. The current Immigration Act review provides an opportunity to strengthen human rights provisions. * There are a number of national and local initiatives (including settlement plans) to support migrants, however these settlement programmes need to be strengthened.

* Recent changes to immigration policy relating to increased English language competency may be establishing barriers to otherwise suitable applicants from non-English speaking countries, and there are barriers to the full uptake of Pacific migrant quotas.

* There is evidence that many new migrants experience racial discrimination, racial harassment and abuse.

Race relations

* New Zealanders place a high value on harmonious race relations and, while there are points of friction and disagreement, there is a strong tradition of resolving such issues in a peaceful manner.

* There are channels to address complaints about discrimination. The effectiveness of these may be compromised by a lack of public knowledge, inadequate accessibility for vulnerable groups and a lack of confidence in their effectiveness.

* Despite some indications of improvement, significant racial inequalities continue to exist in health, housing, employment, education, social services and justice (including a highly disproportionate rate of imprisonment of Màori).

* Although such programmes are provided for by the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, there has been considerable public debate about some programmes targeted to particular groups.

* The need to develop an inclusive national identity recognising both the Treaty of Waitangi and cultural diversity was a persistent theme in the consultations.

Emerging issues Biotechnology

* To date, most of the arguments over the new technology have focused on food, plants and medicines rather than its human rights implications.

* There is potential for discrimination on the basis of genetic testing and our current laws may not be adequate to protect against this.

Unpaid work

* The Commission receives a variety of complaints and enquiries relating to unpaid work, including unpaid full-time caring for older people and children and residential care of disabled children. * Further work is needed to assess the adequacy of the legal framework for dealing with unpaid work and for protecting the human rights of those engaged in it.

Breastfeeding

* The international human rights standards are still evolving, and the issue of how the right to breastfeed is best given meaning has not been fully explored.
* Some complaints about detrimental treatment relating to breastfeeding have been upheld by the Commission as sex discrimination.

Discrimination against homosexual, transsexual and intersex people

* New Zealand has done well in decriminalising homosexual activity between consenting adults, making sexual orientation a prohibited ground of discrimination and through specific initiatives to better inform policy and daily life.
* Homosexual, transsexual and intersex people continue to be marginalised and discriminated against within New Zealand society.
* Even where participation is not explicitly denied, the stigma associated with 'abnormal' sexual identity frequently results in exclusion or harassment.
* Lack of official data is a serious impediment to progress.

Human rights education Human rights education is much more than providing information about human rights. It is about taking steps toward creating an environment where human rights are respected and people are given a 'fair go'. * Among the general population there is limited knowledge and understanding of human rights, and their relevance to everyday life.
* New Zealand does not have a nationally co-ordinated or strategic approach to human rights education. It is often initiated on an ad-hoc basis in response to perceived problems, tends to have a narrow focus and lacks evaluation.

Background Information

What are human rights? Human rights recognise and aim to protect the dignity of all people whatever their status or condition in life. They are about how we live together and our responsibilities to each other. In particular, they set a basis for the relationship between the individuals, groups and the State.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The rights in the Declaration fall roughly into two categories; civil and political rights; and economic, cultural and social rights.

Since 1948, the rights in the Declaration have been set out in United Nations' Covenants and Conventions. Through ratification of these treaties and obligations under the United Nations' Charter and the ILO Constitution, New Zealand has formally committed to respecting these rights.

This report assesses the extent to which this is reflected in the structures, organisations and processes of government as well as in legislation, policy and practice throughout the wider community.

A human rights approach The six elements of a human rights approach to assess policy and programmes are:

* An emphasis on the participation of individuals and groups in decision-making.
* Accountability for actions and decisions, which allows individuals and groups to complain about decisions that affect them adversely.
* Non-discrimination among individuals and groups through the equal enjoyment of rights and obligations by all.
* Empowerment of individuals and groups by allowing them to use rights as leverage for action and to legitimise their voice in decision-making.
* The linking of decision-making at every level to the agreed human rights norms.
* Identification of all the relevant human rights of all involved and, in the case of conflict, the balancing of the various rights to maximise respect for all rights and right-holders.

For a copy of Human Rights in New Zealand Today: www.hrc.co.nz/actionplan (from September 1)

ENDS


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