In 1993, the Parliament of New Zealand consolidated the Human Rights Commission Act and Race Relations Act (both from the 1970’s) into a single entity: The Human Rights Act. It went into effect in 1994. Today, it forms the backbone of human rights law in the country alongside the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. What does it do, exactly?
The Act made discrimination for a wide number of reasons illegal, including:
- Marital status
- Ethical belief
- Political opinion
- Sex (pregnancy and childbirth)
- Disability (including physical and psychiatric illness)
- Employment status
- Sexual orientation
- Family status
- Ethnic or national origins
Discrimination is illegal in all of public life, including education, employment, provision of goods and services, housing and accommodation, and access to public places.
The Act also reaffirmed the Human Rights Commission, which was established in the Human Rights Commission Act of 1977. While the Act isn’t explicit about discrimination based on gender identity, the Human Rights Commission accepts complaints based on the issue.
In 2001, New Zealand passed the Human Rights Amendment Act, which changed some aspects of the 1993 Act. Some of these changes included expanding the publicly-funded complaints process; changing the “structure and function of human rights institutions;” and promising a full-time Race Relations Commissioner and a full-time Chief Human Rights Commissioner. Additionally, the term “disability” was removed from several acts as a reason for removal from statutory appointments, and replaced with the phrase “inability to perform the functions of the office.”
New Zealand is seen by many nations as a good example for upholding human rights, but the country has its problems, in particular its history with the Maori population. While they make up only 14% of the total population in NZ, Maoris comprise almost 50% of the prison population. They also face higher unemployment rates and other negative and social outcomes.
The right to privacy, which is not included in either the 1993 Act or Bill of Rights 1990, has also become a bigger issue in the internet age. The Acting Chief Commissioner recommends that the Bill be amended to include all the rights in the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, which includes the right to privacy.
Both the state of the Maori community and privacy will most likely be talking points during New Zealand’s Universal Periodic Review early in 2019, when United Nations member states will assess the country’s human rights record over the last five years.