NZ's human rights record

Only six months ago, this newspaper reflected on human rights abuses elsewhere in the world and noted many Western countries - including New Zealand - liked to think they were free of atrocities, but were in fact party to varying degrees of human rights abuses.

The newspaper was commenting on findings in Amnesty International's annual report into The State of the World's Human Rights in 2012, which criticised New Zealand for undermining children's rights through high levels of child poverty, women's rights through violence against women; and the rights of asylum-seekers through the introduction of the Immigration Amendment (Mass Arrivals) Bill, with its new powers of detention, into Parliament.

The previous year's Amnesty report made the same findings on child poverty, and others including the possible torture of detainees captured during joint operations in Afghanistan.

The child poverty issue remains a significant one, the mass arrivals legislation has been enacted, a report this week was damning about the Government's treatment of some refugees here, and also this week the Human Rights Commission stated human rights ''challenges'' are still being faced by many in the wake of the Canterbury earthquakes.

New Zealand takes 750 refugees per year under the quota system for the UNHCR, the United Nations' Refugee Agency. Those ''quota refugees'' receive various benefits and support under the Government's Refugee Resettlement Strategy.

This week's report by the ChangeMakers Refugee Forum and the National Refugee Network found about 140 ''convention refugees'' taken in each year under the 1951 Refugee Convention after they turn up in New Zealand seeking asylum miss out on those benefits and are facing an array of challenges.

In the wake of the report, the Government has at least said it will consider extending its resettlement services to those refugees, but it seems shameful such people, many of whom will have escaped horrific circumstances most New Zealanders will never have to endure, should face discrimination and hardship in a country which has accepted them and should surely be expected to support them.

There are also continued calls to increase the quota of refugees this country accepts, unchanged for 20 years. Our geographical location means we do not face the problems of mass asylum-seekers arriving, such as those faced by the likes of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq who are sheltering the now more than 2 million refugees fleeing Syria's civil war.

The oft-quoted ''issues'' around accepting refugees - cost and integration - are surely surmountable. Most refugees are committed to finding education and work in their adopted home and bringing up their families with many of the values that attracted them here in the first place and paying back that ''debt'' by contributing to society.

Treating them with fairness and compassion and giving support and understanding in the early stages is fundamental to helping them achieve that.

Another ''wake-up'' call came this week with the release of the Human Rights Commission's report, ''Monitoring Human Rights in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery''.

Commissioner David Rutherford says although much has been done by the Government to protect the rights of those affected, ''the earthquakes resulted in challenges to the realisation of a range of economic and social rights, such as the right to housing, to an adequate standard of living, health, education and to property.

Civil and political rights such as rights to participation or access to information have also been affected''. He says there are lessons to be learned for the country and makes a raft of recommendations.

The earthquakes have undoubtedly provided the largest domestic challenge undertaken by this country, and it was inevitable it would not all be plain sailing.

But as the United Nations states: ''Human rights don't disappear the moment an earthquake, a hurricane or a tsunami strikes ... during relief and recovery efforts the protection of human rights gains in importance as it can safeguard the dignity of those affected''.

At the very least, the Government needs to dignify the various reports with attention and careful consideration.


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