Human Rights in Asia-Pacific; Review of 2019 - New Zealand


A terror attack against two mosques on 15 March killed 51 people, the deadliest mass shooting in modern New Zealand history. New Zealand continued to struggle to address problems relating to its detention facilities, the rights of Indigenous peoples, children’s rights and gender-based violence.

Counter-terror and security

On 15 March, a lone gunman attacked the Al-Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch while Muslim worshippers were at prayer. Fifty-one people were killed, including people who had fled persecution in other countries and sought refuge in New Zealand, and more than 50 others were injured, some seriously. The attacker live-streamed the first shooting on Facebook Live. A man was charged with offences related to the attack. The government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the performance of state agencies in the lead-up to the events, including whether security agencies failed to anticipate the attack, and passed legislation further regulating the use of firearms.

In June, the National Human Rights Commission renewed its calls for improved data collection of hate-motivated crimes. There was an absence of systematically collected data on racially and religiously motivated crime in New Zealand.

In November, the government introduced a Terrorism Suppression (control orders) Bill with a public consultation period of three working days. The control orders regime enabled the High Court to restrict an individual’s human rights on a lower burden of proof, in a high degree of intrusion normally only imposed following a criminal conviction.

Indigenous peoples’ rights

Indigenous Māori comprised around 16% of the population but made up 38% of people prosecuted by police, 42% of adults convicted, and 57% of adults sentenced to prison. In June, an interim report of an independent review of the criminal justice system concluded that the number of Māori in the system was at “crisis” levels and noted the detrimental impact of colonisation and racism affecting Māori at every point in the criminal justice system.

In August, the Waitangi Tribunal, a permanent commission of inquiry, found that the law preventing all sentenced prisoners from voting was inconsistent with the Treaty of Waitangi, and exacerbated a pre-existing and already disproportionate removal of Māori from the electoral roll. It called for an urgent change in the law to prevent further disenfranchisement in the 2020 general election. This followed a decision by the Supreme Court in November 2018 that confirmed a lower court ruling declaring the legislation a breach of New Zealand's human rights obligations.


Inspections carried out in prisons under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture) found several instances of degrading treatment or punishment that amounted to breaches of the Convention. These included prisoners being held in cells without adequate access to toilets and water, and surveillance of prisoners washing and bathing in various stages of undress.

Children’s rights

In July, New Zealand raised the age to 18 for individuals tried in the adult criminal justice system in order to include 17-year-olds in its alternative youth justice system. However, the country retained its reservation to the Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding mixing juveniles with adults in places of detention. According to domestic law, people under the age of 18 could be held on remand in police cells, with some being held in police custody for several nights. There were a number of reports of children engaging in self-harm while in such custody.

Legislative reforms to the child protection system and to the measurement of child poverty came into force, which included explicit references to the rights of children under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. However, the number of children in New Zealand who experienced poverty and material deprivation remained high, with an estimated 13% living in households that experienced material hardship and 6% in severe hardship. The numbers of children in state care also reached a record high.

Monitoring visits to secure child protection facilities by the independent Commissioner for Children recorded problems raised by children, including alleged injuries from the use of restraints by staff. Concerns were raised about processes, fairness and effectiveness in the use of grievance procedures, restraints and behaviour management systems.

Refugees and asylum seekers

In October a government policy was eliminated that had prevented refugees from the Middle East and Africa from being resettled under the resettlement quota unless they had family in New Zealand.

A community sponsorship refugee resettlement programme was piloted and reviewed as an additional protection pathway for refugees. A group of 21 UN-recognized refugees were supported by approved community organisations under the scheme. The government did not make any decision regarding the future of the programme, or its policy, which included language, skills, health and age eligibility restrictions for sponsored refugees.

As of March, there were eight asylum seekers held in a correctional facility alongside criminal remand prisoners. Under law, asylum seekers could be detained if if they were considered to pose a risk to national security or if there were doubts as to their identities or risks of them absconding. Lawyers and support agencies remained concerned about their safety, well-being, and length of time in detention.

Violence against women and girls

Twenty-one percent of adult women reported experiencing one or more incidents of intimate partner violence, and 34% reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual violence in their lifetime. In May, the government announced a cross-agency funding package dedicated to preventing and reducing family and sexual violence, which included expanding specialist sexual violence services, funding for advertising campaigns and intervention programmes to reduce violence occurring, and reforming the criminal justice system to better respond to victims of sexual violence.