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The United Nations Committee Against Torture has called out various failings in New Zealand’s justice system, including the very low age of criminal responsibility, the shocking use of spit hoods against children, and the disproportionate harm to Māori in places of detention.

The Committee has scrutinised Aotearoa New Zealand as part of its regular review process for States that have ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

“This Convention is designed to protect everyone, including people in prison and youth justice facilities, from the harm of torture, cruelty and degrading treatment. At the heart, this is about ensuring that all people are treated with dignity, which is a core tenant of human rights,” said Lisa Woods, Campaigns Director for Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand.

“To our dismay, we are seeing a clear pattern of human rights issues across New Zealand’s justice system, and we welcome the scrutiny of the Committee against Torture in holding the New Zealand Government to account for these failings.

Stamp out spit hoods

The Committee were unequivocal in their assessment that the use of spit hoods against children is unacceptable. In their written recommendations to the New Zealand Government, the Committee has called for the explicit prohibition of force, “including physical restraints and the use of pepper spray and spit hoods”, against children. More broadly, the Committee has advised that “the State party should…take all necessary measures to end the use of spit hoods in all circumstances”.

Last week, Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier also called on the New Zealand Government to end the use of spit hoods on young people, and Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand has joined this call.

“Spit hoods can pose a serious health risk to young people, many of whom may have already experienced unspeakable trauma in their early lives. We acknowledge the numerous challenges facing staff in places of detention, but the Government must find alternative solutions to keep staff safe,” said Woods.

Raise the age of criminal responsibility

The Committee was firm in its assessment that the New Zealand Government must bring its youth justice system fully into line with the Convention against Torture. First among the recommendations to achieve this was the call to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility, in accordance with international standards.

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The current minimum age of criminal responsibility in Aotearoa New Zealand is 10 years old. This was set over 50 years ago in 1961. In 1993, the New Zealand Government ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which lays out clear recommendations for the country’s youth justice system. In 2019, the UN encouraged all States to increase their minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old.

“We want to live in a world where all children are safe and supported. New Zealand’s current age of criminal responsibility flies in the face of children’s rights and ignores the evidence that punitive approaches don’t work to reduce youth re-offending,” said Woods.

Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand has launched a petition urging the Government to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old.

“We need an approach that looks after people who have been harmed by youth offending, and also addresses the upstream factors that have led to his harm. Raising the age of criminal responsibility is just one of many steps that the Government must take to create a fairer justice system for all,” said Woods.

Transformational change needed

The Committee emphasised their concern that Māori, particularly women and young people, continue to be disproportionately affected by incarceration. In their written recommendations to the New Zealand Government, the Committee notes that “the delegation acknowledged that a transformational change is required to reverse this trend and that, in order to achieve that change, the State party needs to implement comprehensive measures that include, inter alia, legislative and policy reforms.”

Led by People Against Prisons Aotearoa, and together with many others from civil society, Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand has signed an open letterseeking a commitment from justice sector leaders to implement all 12 of the recommendations made in the 2019 Turuki! Turuki! report. The report was produced by Te Uepū Hāpai i te Ora – the Safe and Effective Justice advisory group, which was established by the Ministry of Justice in 2018. This report acknowledges transformative change is needed and provides a pathway forward.

“The failure of Government to uphold He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti, the immeasurable violence and harm caused throughout our colonial history, racism and the discriminatory practices that still prevail today are all central to the issues in the criminal justice system,” said Woods.

“While we work to reduce harm in the current system, our overarching goal is to support the transformation of this system into one that fully and properly recognises the tino rangatiratanga of Māori that Te Tiriti and He Whakaputanga uphold.”

Background

States that have ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment are required to undergo regular reviews by the Committee of independent international experts to assess how they are implementing the Convention. Aotearoa New Zealand ratified the Convention on 10 December 1989 and was last reviewed in 2015.

Together with the justice advocacy group JustSpeak, Amnesty International Aotearoa New Zealand made a joint submission to the UN Committee against Torture ahead of this latest review, which was conducted over two days (18 and 19 July 2023). The Committee’s concluding observations and recommendations to the New Zealand Government were published on Friday 28 July. These recommendations highlight various areas of concern, including domestic violence, counterterrorism, the detention of people seeking asylum, and the country’s justice system. The latter included concerns about:

  • the use of spit hoods and pepper spray, including in confined spaces
  • excessive use of various means of physical or chemical restraint
  • access to a lawyer
  • the use of prolonged solitary confinement
  • the denial of adequate time out of cell
  • the disproportionate incarceration rates of Māori
  • insufficient mental health services
  • the lack of meaningful activities for people in prisons
  • understaffing in places of detention, and several other issues.


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