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United Nations Receives Complaint from New Zealand Prisoners

On 21 January 2019, Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, appeared before the UN Human Rights Council.

He stated that New Zealand can do more to advance the rights of its people. On the same day, a group of Maori prisoners and Arthur Taylor filed a claim with the Office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for Human Rights.

1. Andrew Little delivered a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the third Universal Periodic Review on 21/01/19. On the subject of the criminal justice system, he said:

The Government cannot achieve our goal of making New Zealand the best place in the world to live and raise a family without addressing head-on the challenges presented by our justice system. It is fair to say that our justice system is broken. We have one of the highest incarceration rates per capita in the world, and it has risen in recent years. Māori are disproportionately represented at every stage of our criminal justice system, both as offenders and victims. We are struggling with prison capacity and prisoner violence. Ninety percent of prisoners have a lifetime diagnosis of mental health or substance use disorder.

2. However, it is clear that the coalition government does not see the need to change the law on prisoner voting in the short-term. One of the ways to fix a broken criminal justice system is to allow prisoners the right to participate in decisions of government that affect their lives. The majority of prisoners serve sentences of less than two years imprisonment, and therefore issues in relation to health, education, and an affordable home are important to them right now and no doubt when they are released from custody.

3. It is commonly accepted that indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the prison population of most countries overpowered by British colonisation centuries ago. Instead of taking simple legislative measures to reintegrate prisoners with society, the government continues to isolate them from the outside world and forfeit a significant opportunity to assist them with their rehabilitation.

4. The hypocrisy and double standards are absurd. All coalition parties voted against the legislation in 2010 because it breached a fundamental right of New Zealand citizens. However, the same parties refuse to promote the right now when they fought so hard to defend it back in 2010. The discriminatory effect of sentenced prisoner disenfranchisement and the unique social, economic and political needs of Maori, were some of the reasons why the coalition parties challenged the 2010 Amendment. However, these matters no longer seem relevant, unless of course it is a representative of the coalition government double speaking before the United Nations about its human rights obligations. (Refer: Andrew Little speech to United Nations Human Rights Council for the third Universal Periodic Review, 21 January 2019).

5. There is great importance in speaking publicly about the attempts of any government to silence the voice of its citizens regardless of whether they are prisoners or not. Since our Bill of Rights is not supreme law, it cannot protect the right to vote in this country. Based on the results of the prisoner voting cases, Parliament has the power, for example, to pass a law by a bare majority disqualifying all people from voting in predominately left leaning suburbs in order to subvert the electoral base of centre-left parties. As Lord Bingham of Cornhill stated in Attorney-General v Guardian Newspapers Ltd (No 2) [1988] 3 All ER 545:

"Sometimes, inevitably, those involved in the conduct of government, as in any other walk of life, are guilty of error, incompetence, misbehaviour, dereliction of duty, even dishonesty and malpractice. Those concerned may very strongly wish that the facts relating to such matters are not made public. Publicity may reflect discredit on them or their predecessors. It may embarrass the authorities. It may impede the process of administration. Experience however shows, in this country and elsewhere, that publicity is a powerful disinfectant."

6. The media have a legitimate power of persuasion in Bill of Rights cases. Inherent in DOI litigation is the principle that the effectiveness of declaratory relief requires publicity of the breach of the Bill of Rights. Mainstream media is arguably the most effective way to publicise the decision of the court and how the impugned legislation is inconsistent with the rights and freedoms of the citizenry. Once most people have full knowledge of the human rights violation, it is up to them to influence the legislators to change the law, and there are many ways that can be achieved including voting against the government responsible for passing the rights infringing legislation, or the government that refuses to amend the legislation.