NZ secures clean bill of health on rights for women

  • Lianne Dalziel
Women's Affairs

Women's Affairs Minister Lianne Dalziel tonight welcomed the unanimous passing of a Bill that gives New Zealand a clean bill of health as a credible voice in international women's rights.

The passing of the Human Rights (Women in Armed Forces) Amendment Bill now enables New Zealand to lift its one reservation to an international treaty recognising the rights of women, Lianne Dalziel said.

"This gives us absolute credibility whenever we speak out on discrimination against women in other countries."

The amendment to the Human Rights Act was supported by all parties in its third and final reading in Parliament today.

The amendment removes the ability of the armed forces to exclude women from combat roles, which had remained in law even though it is no longer applied in practice. This means New Zealand can now remove its only reservation to the United Nations international bill of rights for women – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Lianne Dalziel said.

"Servicewomen already play a vital part in all operations of our armed forces, and have been able to serve in any role since 2000 when the Defence Force officially rescinded its policy of not permitting women to serve in combat positions. So, while nothing will change in practice, this is an important symbolic step in granting women full equality before the law," Lianne Dalziel said.

The Bill was introduced to Parliament by Waitakere MP Lynne Pillay as a private member's bill. Lianne Dalziel took over the Bill on behalf of the government so that it could be considered by the House in time to complete the process of withdrawing the reservation before the 39th session of the CEDAW committee in New York later this year.

"We now expect to be able to fully meet our international obligations with respect to this important human rights issue. I am indebted to Lynne Pillay for her hard work in initiating this bill and commend all parties for their support."

Human Rights (Women in Armed Forces) Amendment Act Questions and Answers

What does the Act do?

The Human Rights (Women in Armed Forces) Amendment Act removes a provision in the Human Rights Act 1993 that allowed the Armed Forces to restrict women’s involvement in combat and other front-line roles. This was the only remaining area of employment in New Zealand where it was legal to discriminate against women.

Do the Armed Forces discriminate against women in front-line roles now?

No. When the Human Rights Act was passed in 1993 the Armed Forces still had a policy of not allowing women to serve in combat roles and the Act provided an exemption for the Armed Forces covering sexual discrimination in employment matters. However, in 2002, the Chief of Defence Force lifted all restrictions on the employment of women in combat roles. The chiefs of the Navy, Army and Air Force were asked to establish procedures for the employment of women in trades, from which women were previously excluded, with a goal of full integration by 2005. The Navy had already opened the Diving Branch to women in February 2000, thus removing the last restricted trade within that service.

If the Armed Forces’ policy is to have women in front-line roles, why do you need to change the law?

Until now New Zealand has reserved the right to discriminate against women in respect of combat roles and law enforcement roles where there is likely to be violence by registering an official ‘reservation’ to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

The CEDAW Committee’s concluding comments after considering New Zealand’s fifth report stated ‘[the] State Party is urged to expedite the steps necessary for the withdrawal of its remaining reservation to the Convention’.

New Zealand has been invited to appear before the CEDAW Committee during its thirty-ninth session from 23 July to 10 August 2007. New Zealand will now be able to withdraw its reservation and fully comply with CEDAW.

What is CEDAW?

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is often described as an international bill of rights for women.

CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. It defines discrimination against women as "...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

By accepting the Convention, States commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including:

  • to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;
  • to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and
  • to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organisations or enterprises.

Countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They are also committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations.

Does the law change have any other implications?

New Zealand’s reservation to CEDAW also extends to the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. Tokelau and Niue are covered by the law change and have agreed to be associated with New Zealand’s action to withdraw the reservation. The Cook Islands has now acceded to the CEDAW Convention in its own right and may withdraw its reservation independently if it wishes.