Keynote address to UN Human Rights Council

  • Amy Adams

Thank you, Mr President,

It is an honour to be here this morning as the first New Zealand Minister to present to the Human Rights Council.

Keeping human rights in the spotlight

A decade on from the establishment of this Council and 50 years since the adoption of the two foundational human rights covenants, it is timely to reflect on the progress and challenges in the promotion and protection of human rights.

Creating institutions and ratifying conventions is important, but the true test lies in our actions - the degree to which live up to our obligations and commitments on a daily basis.

And this is incumbent on all of us. 

No country is perfect in the implementation of its obligations under international human rights law nor is it an easy task. 

The promotion and protection of human rights requires constant political courage, foresight and commitment.

The challenges we face today in realising the aspirations of the two foundational human rights covenants are vast. 

An important area focus for our term on the Security Council is conflict prevention, and respect for human rights is an important part of this work.

The cost of not having such checks on the abuse of power or ways to protect citizens’ rights can be seen in the devastating conflicts in Syria, in Libya, as well as on-going crises we are seeing in places such as South Sudan, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo.

New Zealand welcomes the vital and courageous contribution of the High Commissioner Prince Zeid and his Office over the last year, despite the challenging environment in which the Office operates. 

As a UN Security Council member, we can attest to the value of the High Commissioner’s briefings to the Security Council.

The Human Rights Council itself also has an important role in detecting the signs of emerging crises that could develop into serious conflicts and in supporting institutions that stem the abuse of power and protect citizens’ rights. 

For this reason, New Zealand will continue to use this Council to raise concerns about serious violations of human rights abroad – we firmly believe doing so is a critical function of this body. 

And we will continue to be strong advocates for the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the human rights treaty bodies and the network of independent Special Rapporteurs in working collaboratively with fragile states to strengthen domestic institutions and to highlight serious abuses of human rights.

We recognise that we have to be open to review ourselves. 

This is why New Zealand is a strong supporter of the Universal Periodic Review, has a standing invitation to the special rapporteurs and engages constructively with the treaty bodies.

Our track record on human rights

Mr President, New Zealand is a proudly democratic and multicultural nation of 4.6 million people.

We’re a nation that prides itself on fairness and equal opportunity for everyone.

New Zealand has a strong track record of human rights – both within our own shores and on the global stage.

We recognise that we have a role to play both in keeping human rights are the forefront of the international community and, where we can, in helping other countries do better.

Progress we’ve made on priority areas

While we have achieved enormous gains ourselves and are proud of our human rights record, we accept there is always room for improvement.

During our review by this Council in 2014 New Zealand accepted recommendations to reduce violence against children and women address child poverty, and take steps to eliminate the overrepresentation of Maori in prisons.

These are complex challenges requiring multi-faceted policy measures, considerable resources, and no small amount of patience.

Today I wish to update the Council on what New Zealand is achieving on these priority areas.

Women’s rights

But first I want to address the issue of family violence, which to me is one of utmost importance.

Violence against women and children is a global problem.

It’s estimated that 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives.

That’s roughly 1.2 billion victims who have had to endure indecent assault.

In 2012, around 50 per cent of all female homicide victims in the world were killed by their partner or family member.

These are horrific and sobering statistics.

But they’re more than that.

These are our mothers, daughters, sisters and aunts.

And they’re enduring abhorrent and degrading abuse.

Nearly all states signed up the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination in 1984 and at Beijing in 1995.

But, sadly the problem has only grown worse as conflicts create new horrors for women and girls and a lack of access to basic health services.

Around the world, women are still falling victim to various forms of inequality and discrimination.

In many countries, the law does not give women the same rights as men.

In others, those rights are not respected in practice.

Family violence

Mr President, I’m here today as a proudly staunch champion of equal rights for women to add my voice to the global outcry calling for women to be treated equally, regardless of where they live, and to have the right to live their lives free of violence and intimidation.

New Zealand speaks strongly for women in international forums and works hard to meet its obligations in relation to the status of women.

It’s an issue that we are working actively to keep a global spotlight on.

But we’re by no means perfect ourselves.

New Zealand is also grappling with the problem of violence against women.

Too many New Zealand women are abused at the hands of their loved ones.

In 2014 there were more than100,000 family violence investigations by New Zealand Police – that’s one every five minutes and the vast majority of these assaults are committed against women and children.  Half of all our serious violent crime and homicides are family violence related.

The violence is also disproportionately experienced by Maori and Pacifica families in our communities with Maori women 2.8x more likely to be killed by their partners than NZ-European women and Maori children almost 5x more likely to be assaulted.

Protecting fundamental human rights sits at the heart of our efforts to combat family violence.

Victims of family violence have their rights breached in a very direct way through the violation of the fundamental integrity of the person. 

Family violence also has more insidious effects limiting on the way in which individuals can exercise their rights to live and work in freedom, associate with whomever they choose, and enjoy the right to family life.

Although the crime rate in New Zealand is at its lowest since 1978, we understand that we can do more to help the victims of family violence in our country. 

The Government acknowledges that violence against women is a serious criminal justice, public health and social issue in New Zealand. 

As well as championing rights of women around the world, we are focused on what we can do better at home.

We remain steadfast in our commitment to reducing the incidence and impact of all forms of violence against women, and ensuring all government services are tailored to victims’ needs. 

Work underway to combat family violence

Preventing and reducing family violence is a key objective for the Government and I have named it as my top priority as Justice Minister.

I am the co-chair of an all-of Government Ministerial Group on Family violence and Sexual Violence, in partnership with my colleague Anne Tolley, the Minister of Social Development. 

This is a high-powered group that sits at the very centre of decision-making. Ministers from across 16 portfolios make up the group, along with government agencies from across the public sector.

This group spearheads a cross-government family violence work programme that concentrates on stopping family violence from occurring, getting victims the help they need, and holding perpetrators to account. 

We aim to achieve an integrated and effective family violence system that is joined up, aligned, and making a difference.

In my own area of work, there are no less than twelve initiatives underway to tackle family violence.

In November 2015, I appointed the first ever Chief Victims Advisor to provide independent advice to the Government on legislative, policy and other issues relating to victims of crime.

The Chief Advisor will provide advice about how to improve the responsiveness of the justice system and make it easier for victims to navigate and get the services they need.

We are also undertaking a review of our family violence laws to develop legislation that better supports victims to be safe and holding perpetrators to account.

We’ve improved judges’ access to information in family violence cases by improving information sharing regulations and ensured Police are able to disclose known risk information to family members who may be at risk.

Across the wider Government response we are analysing every aspect of the system’s response, from primary prevention education, to risk assessment and workforce development, through initial response, legal process, victim safety and support and better perpetrator management.  We have accepted that we can and must do more and significant change will only occur if we are open to considerable change in how the system responds.

Helping our Pacific neighbours

Mr President, the rate of family violence in our regional neighbourhood is particularly acute.

We are working hard with partners in the Pacific to improve the situation of women and girls.

The Pacific Prevention of Domestic Violence Programme, which New Zealand runs as a joint initiative with Australia and the Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police, addresses this issue in the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu and Kiribati.

This programme builds the capacity of Pacific Police Services to undertake investigations and provide support to victims, as well as community awareness campaigns to raise awareness and support police within the community.

Protection and Advancement of Children

The protection and advancement of New Zealand children remains a key focus for the New Zealand Government.

Based on the latest available comparisons, New Zealand’s child poverty rates are in the middle of the international league tables published by the OECD and the European Union.

While we recognise that there is more to be done, we are also proud that all children in New Zealand have access to free primary and secondary schooling as well as free health care and have universal access to interest free loans to support them through tertiary education.  We are making solid progress in lifting children’s achievement and health outcomes and we have an unrelenting focus on reducing the number of assaults against children.

We know employment is the best way to lift families out of hardship and The Government is continuing to promote economic growth and incentivise work while ensuring children caught in poverty are supported.

To assist, we raised core benefits rates for the first time since 1972.

There has also been widespread reform of the welfare system over recent years aimed at increasing independence where possible. This is working well with 42,000 fewer children living in welfare dependent homes since this time three years ago and the lowest number of teenage mothers for many years.

Māori overrepresentation

Moving now to the issue of Māori overrepresentation in the criminal justice system both as offenders and as victims, we acknowledge that this is a significant challenge for New Zealand.

Māori make up 15 percent of the general population but are half of the prison population.

For these reasons, we have developed programmes specifically tailored to address this issue.

The Department of Corrections actively engages with iwi (which are Māori tribes), other Māori groups and communities to help Māori offenders address their criminal behaviour.  Programmes are designed and carried out in collaboration with Māori service providers and communities. 

Turning of the Tide is a Police initiative that is part of its commitment to working with Māori to reduce repeat offending and victimisation. 

It is a visionary strategy developed by Māori communities and Police.

We also have special courts, called Rangatahi Courts, which operate under the same laws as other courts but are informed by Māori values. For example, proceedings are held on a Marae, which is a Māori community hub, and Marae elders are involved in follow-up activities where appropriate. 

The aim is to reduce reoffending by young Māori by making justice processes more meaningful for the individual and their families. Analysis conducted in December 2015 suggests that young people who appeared in a Rangatahi Court from 2011 to 2013 had a 6 percent lower rate of reoffending than comparable young people that appeared in mainstream youth courts.

The Ministry of Justice has also funded seven local Crime Prevention initiatives for Māori Communities. These programmes are more effective because they involve local Māori, including elders and respected persons, in the development and delivery of the programme.

Indigenous rights

The New Zealand Government remains committed to the global discussion on the promotion and protection of indigenous rights as it pertains to our own indigenous population, New Zealand Māori. 

Representing 15 per cent of New Zealand’s population, Māori are a unique group within our country with a rich culture, which is integral to the New Zealand identity. 

The Treaty of Waitangi, signed on 6 February 1840, remains central to New Zealand Government’s engagement with iwi and is best described as establishing a partnership between Māori and the Crown based on mutual respect, cooperation, and good faith.

The New Zealand Government has committed to pursuing efforts of comprehensively settling historical Treaty claims of Māori against the Crown through the Treaty Settlement Process.  

We remain committed to negotiating fair and durable settlements, with packages including a Crown apology, cultural redress and financial and commercial redress.

Disability rights

New Zealand was the chair of the negotiations for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the years leading up to adoption in 2006.  

The Convention remains the most quickly ratified human rights instrument in history and the only treaty to combine development and human rights perspectives.   

We have come a long way in recognising that persons with disabilities are entitled to all human rights and what this means in practice.  

New Zealand and Mexico have since led resolutions of the Council which have elaborated on the rights of persons with disabilities relating to education, employment, political participation, the right to live independently, and most recently on rights in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies.

This year, we are proud to be promoting the candidature of New Zealander Robert Martin for the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

If elected, Robert would be the first person with an intellectual disability to serve on the Committee. 

Ten years ago, in the negotiations of the Convention, we said that inclusion must mean all persons with disabilities.  This principle was often tested in the negotiations – no group has suffered greater potential for marginalisation than those with intellectual disabilities.   

It is time to take the next step. 

Robert is an inspiration and a role model for all persons with intellectual disabilities and we are proud to submit him as New Zealand’s first candidate.

Closing remarks

Mr President, I said at the beginning of my address that the true test lies in our actions – the degree to which we all live up to our obligations and commitments on a daily basis.

New Zealand supports this Council in helping states to achieve that goal.   

I appreciate this opportunity to come to the Human Rights Council to reiterate New Zealand’s strong support for the system of human rights mechanisms which are essential tools in addressing serious violations of human rights.  

We hope to see this Council work effectively with states to stem the abuses of power that so often lead to devastating conflicts and to work with states to improve institutions that protect and promote the rights of all citizens regardless of religion, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity or race.  

I also appreciate the chance to provide an update on what New Zealand is achieving in the realisation of the human rights treaties to which are party and for which we are strong advocates.

New Zealand looks forward to engaging with Council in our next periodic review.