U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - New Zealand

Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997   New Zealand is a parliamentary democracy, with executive authority vested in a 20-member cabinet led by a prime minister. Five seats in the 120-member Parliament are reserved for the native Maori minority population. The judiciary is independent. The Cook Islands, and Niue are self-governing states in free association with New Zealand. Tokelau is a New Zealand territory. Their local laws are compatible with New Zealand and British common law. The police and defense forces are responsible to and firmly controlled by civilian officials. New Zealand is a highly efficient producer of agricultural products. The mainstay of its market-based economy is the export of wool, meat, and dairy products. An expanding manufacturing sector is engaged primarily in food processing, metal fabrication, and the production of wood and paper products. Tourism is also a significant sector of the economy, and niche industries are developing in such high technology sectors as software production. Disparities in wealth are small but increasing. Most citizens enjoy a comfortable standard of living. The Government fully respects the human rights of its citizens, and the law and judiciary provide effective means of dealing with instances of individual abuse. The Government has taken steps to address the problems of overcrowded prisons, domestic violence, and societal discrimination against indigenous people.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits torture and other forms of mistreatment, and the Government respects these prohibitions in practice. Prison conditions generally meet minimum international standards, and the Government permits visits by human rights monitors. Officials were increasingly concerned about overcrowding in some prisons. The Office of the Ombudsman was critical of facilities in which prisoners were kept three to a cell and had to use buckets for toilets. The Department of Corrections acknowledged that there was a problem, which it described as "temporary," noting that new prisons scheduled to open later in the year were expected to ease the situation. A study released in August showed that Maori and Pacific Islander inmates had a suicide rate many times that of their counterparts of European heritage. However, it was also noted that the number of suicides in police custody has dropped considerably since 1991. This decline was attributed to increased training for police officers, who had been taught to recognize and monitor prisoners at risk.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government observes these prohibitions.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for the right to a fair trial and an independent judiciary, and the Government respects this provision in practice. The judiciary provides citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process. A three-tiered impartial judiciary is in place, with the right to take an appeal to the Privy Council in London, though this privilege is rarely invoked. There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such practices, government authorities respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject to effective legal sanction.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government respects these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press. Academic freedom is not limited.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The law provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. In April the court ruled on the 1995 case of a family of Jehovah's Witnesses. The parents had appealed a court order that their son be given a blood transfusion in contravention of their religious beliefs; the family lost the appeal. Several other families also have sought the right to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. These cases were still being reviewed by the courts at year's end.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

The law provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. The Government cooperates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. New Zealand provides first asylum and conferred this status on approximately 850 persons in 1996. There were no reports of persons forced to return to a country where they feared persecution.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The law provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. A new electoral system, mixed-member proportional representation, was used in the October 12 general election with 27 political parties participating. Women and minorities are accorded full opportunity to participate in political life. In the 120-member Parliament, 35 seats are held by women; 15 by Maori; 2 members are of Pacific Island origin; and 1 is of Asian heritage. The current Executive Council (cabinet) has 20 ministers including 3 Maori and 1 woman. There are also six ministers outside the Cabinet, three of whom are women.

Section 4 Governmental Attitudes Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A number of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating allegations and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are cooperative and responsive to their views.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of all the above listed factors, and the Government effectively enforces it.


A 1995 government-commissioned survey found widespread physical and psychological abuse by men of their partners, and the Government is making a concerted effort to stop violence against women; initiatives include the issuance of nonmolestation and nonviolence orders against abusive partners, civil protection orders issued in family courts, and suits for compensation for some forms of negligent harm. The law penalizes spousal rape. In addition, the Domestic Violence Act went into effect in July. This law broadened the definition of violence to include psychological abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, and allowing children to witness psychological abuse. The law also provided some relief from the costs of legal aid and mandated stricter penalties for offenders. Discrimination in employment and rates of pay for equal or similar work is prohibited by law. There are effective legal remedies available for women who experience discrimination.


The law provides specific safeguards for children's rights and protection. The Government demonstrates its commitment to children's rights and welfare through its well-funded systems of public education and medical care. While female genital mutilation (FGM) is not known to be practiced in New Zealand, the Government recognizes that the procedure is widely condemned by international health experts as damaging to both physical and psychological health. As New Zealand receives increasing numbers of migrants and refugees from regions where FGM is practiced, the Government is conducting an education program to enable health care professionals to inform their patients about the consequences of FGM. As of January 1, it is expressly illegal to perform FGM or to make arrangements for a child to be removed from New Zealand in order to have the procedure. While no societal pattern of abuse of children exists, the Government recognizes the problem of violence within the family. Both government-sponsored and charitable organizations work to prevent child abuse in the home.

People with Disabilities

The law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, education, and the provision of other state services. Compliance with access laws, mandated by the Disabled Persons Community Welfare Act, varies as business owners and others strive to make necessary adaptations. The 1996 census included questions regarding disabilities for the first time. In addition a sample of the population was asked for more detailed information on disabilities and the barriers faced by the disabled. Following a 1994 decision by the government Human Rights Commission that Stagecoach Wellington, the city bus company, had discriminated against the disabled, the bus company, in cooperation with the Commission and a coachbuilding company, reached agreement on a design for wheelchair-accessible buses, and began test driving the buses in August.

Indigenous People

Approximately 13 percent of the population claim at least one ancestor from the country's indigenous Maori or Moriori minorities. The law prohibits discrimination against the indigenous population, yet a disproportionate number of Maori are included in the unemployment and welfare rolls, the prison population, school dropouts, infant mortality statistics, and single-parent households. Government policy recognizes a special role for indigenous people and their traditional values and customs, including cultural and environmental issues that have an effect on issues of commercial development. The Ministry of Maori Development, in cooperation with several Maori nongovernmental organizations, seeks to improve the status of indigenous people. A special tribunal continues to hear Maori tribal claims to land and other natural resources stemming from the Treaty of Waitangi.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Pacific Islanders, who make up 5 percent of the population, are not an indigenous people, but they experience difficulties similar to Maori.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers have unrestricted rights to establish and join organizations of their own choosing and to affiliate these organizations with other unions and international organizations. The principal labor organization, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, is affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. A second, smaller national labor federation, the New Zealand Trade Union Federation, was established in 1993. There are also a number of independent labor unions. Labor organization is rudimentary in the territory of Tokelau (population 1,800) and in the Freely Associated State of Niue (population 2,000). In the more developed Associated State of the Cook Islands (population 18,000), most workers in the public sector, the major employer, belong to independent local unions inspired by New Zealand models. Industrial relations in the Cooks are governed by a simplified version of older national legislation. The law protects unions from governmental interference, suspension, and dissolution. Unions, in fact, influence legislation and government policy. Some unions are affiliated with the Labour Party; others operate independently of political parties; all are free to support parties whose policies they favor. They freely exercise the right to strike. The law prohibits strikes designed to force an employer to become party to a multicompany contract. Under the Police Act of 1958 and amendments, "sworn police officers," i.e., all uniformed and plainclothes police but excluding clerical and support staff, are barred from striking or taking any form of industrial action. Police, however, have freedom of association and the right to organize and to bargain collectively. Issues which cannot be settled between the Police Association and management through negotiation are subject to compulsory, final-offer arbitration.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law provides for the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, and this is observed in practice in the country and its dependencies. The law prohibits uniformed members of the armed forces from organizing unions and bargaining collectively. Unions now represent fewer than half of all wage earners. Under the Employment Contracts Act, employment relationships are based on contracts. Individual employees and employers may choose to conduct negotiations for employment contracts on their own behalf, or they may authorize any other person or organization to do so on their behalf. Although choosing a union is entirely voluntary, unions have remained the most common agent used by workers to negotiate with employers. Employers must recognize a representative authorized by an employee or employees. Neither employers or employees, however, are required to negotiate or to agree to a contract. The Government does not control mediation and arbitration procedures. The employment court hears cases arising from disputes over the interpretation of labor laws. A less formal body, the employment tribunal, is available to handle wage disputes and assist in maintaining effective labor relations. Firing an employee for union activities is grounds for a finding of unjustified dismissal and may result in reinstatement and financial compensation. There are no export processing zones in New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Niue, or Tokelau.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor. Inspection and legal penalties ensure respect for the provisions.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Department of Labour inspectors effectively enforce a ban on the employment of children under the age of 15 years in manufacturing, mining, and forestry. Children under the age of 16 may not work between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. In addition to explicit restrictions on the employment of children, compulsory education ensures that children under the minimum age for leaving school (now 16 years) are not employed during school hours. By law children enrolled in school may not be employed, even outside school hours, if such employment would interfere with their education.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a 40-hour workweek, with a minimum of 3-weeks annual paid vacation, and 11 paid public holidays. Under the Employment Contracts Act, however, employers and employees may agree to longer hours than the 40 hours per week standard. While the law does not specifically provide for a 24-hour rest period weekly, the practice is accepted by management and labor, and it is the norm. The government-mandated hourly minimum wage of approximately $4.40 ($NZ 6.375) applies to workers 20 years of age and older. Combined with other regularly provided entitlements and welfare benefits for low-income earners, this wage is adequate to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. In 1994 a minimum wage for younger workers was introduced at 60 percent of the adult minimum. A majority of the work force earns more than the minimum wage. An extensive body of law and regulations govern health and safety issues, notably the Health and Safety in Employment Act of 1992. Under this legislation, employers are obliged to provide a safe and healthy work environment, and employees are responsible for their own safety and health as well as ensuring that their actions do not harm others. The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions has criticized the act, however, for not providing sufficient employee involvement in workplace decisions affecting health and safety. Under the Employment Contracts Act, workers have the legal right to strike over health and safety issues. Unions and members of the general public may file safety complaints on behalf of workers. Department of Labour inspectors enforce safety and health rules, and they have the power to shut down equipment if necessary. The Department of Labour standard is to investigate reports of unsafe or unhealthy working conditions within 24 hours of notification. Workers have the right to withdraw from a dangerous work situation without jeopardy to continued employment.

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